CHICAGO — For the better part of a year, I’ve been pulling my hair out about my kids’ deep desire to guzzle sugary, high-caffeine “energy” drinks.
Red Bull, Monster, MiO, Rockstar, NOS, 5-hour ENERGY — you name it, they want it.
For months I’ve been showing up at dinner armed with news stories about how harmful these drinks can be for young, growing bodies. The Food and Drug Administration just confirmed that it is investigating whether Monster drinks were a factor in the deaths of five people since 2009. That’s hard for kids to understand, though. They just nod their heads, because health pales in comparison with being cool.
Like most homes with teenage boys, cool means skateboarding, motocross, BMX biking and any type of “X-treme” sport. Those fans know the sponsors and love their colors, logos and imagery. Even kids into fancier sports such as lacrosse, golf and cycling get indoctrinated into the adoration of energy drinks. Fearless Felix Baumgartner’s history-making jump from the edge of the atmosphere a few weeks back was sponsored by Red Bull.
My sons are forbidden from imbibing energy drinks, which the American Beverage Association estimates contain a little more than twice the amount of caffeine in regular cola soft drinks but about half of full-strength coffee, per ounce — but this hardly matters.
It seems as though every single one of my sons’ friends drink these mega cans of high-octane not only without impunity but in the comfort of their own homes. Their parents buy these products in bulk and often guzzle them too. And I’m sure that’s where my kids have gotten their fix because they’ve never gotten it at our home.
It simply boggles the mind that any parent would let their children drink this stuff. It is bad enough that research has found that high consumption (more than five 12-ounce cans per week) of regular high-sugar sodas by teens has been linked to higher incidences of violence and a higher likelihood of carrying a weapon than those who drank less.
Just imagine adding the higher levels of sugar and caffeine in energy drinks to the already explosive chemistry of the teen body. It’s a recipe for either a really nasty family fight or actual danger.
But don’t be fooled into thinking the worry is limited to high-energy drinks. I’ve learned the hard way that as a parent, you can’t anticipate what’s out there and the willingness of adults behind counters to sell to teens.
My son came home from a trip to the mall one day and told me he and his friend bought something called “Marley’s Mellow Mood” and then felt groggy and sleepy on their bus ride home. I jumped on the Internet to learn that this tea, which comes in a brightly colored can sporting reggae legend Bob Marley’s face, is part of a line of “natural relaxation beverages” infused with “calming botanicals” such as valerian root and chamomile.
I didn’t appreciate an adult selling my young son the equivalent of a drowsiness-inducing vitamin wrapped in a can of tea. Today the stuff has gotten so popular it’s now sold at my corner gas station — and what can I do but tell my kids to stay away from it?
I took no joy in bringing to our dinner table the story of how 14-year-old Anais Fournier died, her parents believe, after having downed two 24-ounce cans of Monster within 24 hours. But I was only too eager to show my sons her picture — she looks just like one of their classmates.
Since parents Wendy Crossland and Richard Fournier have brought this lawsuit against the Monster Beverage Corporation there is finally a much-needed spotlight on what effect all these new designed-for-adults drinks have on adolescents.
It may turn out that people who get sick or even die after consuming these beverages simply had other unknown pre-existing conditions. But years of scientific evidence showing that diets high in sugar plus a lack of regular, uninterrupted sleep result in poor attention spans and higher incidences of a variety of diseases should be enough to prod parents into making sure they don’t allow their children to start an unhealthy habit.
Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.