Energy drinks carry hidden health dangers

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They're popular and powerful, but experts say energy drinks may also be dangerous, if consumed too often.

Doctors warn large amounts of caffeine can cause heart problems and energy drink-related emergency room visits are on the rise.

We've all had that feeling - you're in a fog and need a caffeine fix to bring the day into focus. Some people reach for coffee or maybe a soda, but make no mistake, we now live in the age of energy drinks.

They're brightly-colored beverages in flashy packaging, with names like "Amp", "Monster", and "Rock Star".

They're everywhere you turn - in convenience store coolers, right up at the register and advertised all over TV.

There's even a product sold online that comes with a syringe to drop pure caffeine in your cup. Energy drinks' promise to keep you awake and alert has a lot of people hooked.

"I'm in college. I stay up late. So during a day, I was drinking about three or four," said Columbus resident Jessiqa Troxel.

"I work about 60 hours a week and I have a two-year-old," added Kokomo resident Blake Montgomery. "I had a regular schedule of two to three energy drinks a day."

But as our love of energy drinks grows, so do the concerns about safety.

Doctors are questioning their contents, their consequences and their risks to your health.

"The kids, I think they see it as glamorous," Montgomery said. "I don't think they see the negative of it. And I didn't until I actually witnessed it and it happened to me!"

Montgomery had a serious health scare in October that his doctors blame on energy drinks. The 39-year-old was on the road, making sales calls for work when it happened.

"I was just on West Sycamore Street here in Kokomo and all of a sudden just had, for a quick second blacked out. My heart was racing, chest was super super tight and just was sweating profusely. I really started feeling my heart beat and beat and beat and then luckily, I got to the emergency room fast enough," Montgomery explained. "They told me I was having a heart attack at 255 beats per minute. The nurse comes in, asks me about my caffeine intake. I said I had a few energy drinks that are so popular these days and come to find out it was all caffeine-induced. I never thought caffeine would cause a heart attack. It's scary."

The day of his heart attack, Blake said he'd downed two cups of coffee, a half cup of Mountain Dew and two large Monster Energy drinks.

Twenty-two-year-old college student Jessiqa Troxel ended up in the ER too.

"My heart was feeling like it was beating out of my chest," Troxel said, "and they kept asking me, 'Did you drink anything?' I said, 'Well, I had a few Amps during the week.' And they go, 'Well, your heart's gonna explode if you keep drinking them'."

Jessiqa and Blake certainly aren't alone and the statistics are startling.

Energy drink-related ER visits doubled in recent years, from 10,000 to more than 20,000, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Food and Drug Administration is looking into several deaths associated with the drinks. The FDA also has a long list of reported complaints, from dizziness and tremors to convulsions and cardiac arrest.

Energy drink companies maintain their products are safe.

But Dr. James Mowry of the Indiana Poison Center at IU Health Methodist says the danger with these drinks is the dose.

"If you take a small amount, it's not gonna be that much of a problem. If you take a large amount, or over a prolonged period of time, then it can be a problem," Dr. Mowry said. "You're getting oh, 150, 200, 300 milligrams of caffeine in a single serving and so it's enough to cause overstimulation. It's not a surprise to us that we're seeing more problems with it."

Dieticians recommend no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine in an entire day.

A typical cup of coffee has about 90 milligrams. A cup of tea - 50. A can of pop can't have more than 65 milligrams of caffeine.

But energy drinks?

Some brands have more than 300 milligrams of caffeine and many include more than one serving in each can.

"This one has 120 milligrams of caffeine per serving, but the food label says this is two servings," explained Anna King, dietician with IU Health. "If they go ahead and drink the whole thing, they're already going to get over half of the 400 milligrams in just that one shot."

Plus, there are sometimes more sources of caffeine hidden in the other ingredients. So it can be tough to tell just how much of a jolt you're getting with each can.

Dr. Mowry pointed out the ingredients on a can of Redline.

"Yohimbine, which is a stimulant, yerba mate, which has caffeine in it. If you do that you're going to get at least 300 mg of caffeine from drinking one of these and probably more than that. It's not safe," he said.

Some cans don't list caffeine content at all. And they don't have to.

Energy drinks are considered "dietary supplements," so they're not regulated by the FDA.

"It's not something that's required to be on a food label," King said. "There's no governing body coming and checking and making sure that caffeine is listed on the back of all these."

Just this week, Monster Energy Drink announced it's revamping its labeling and will now list "nutrition facts" rather than "supplement facts". The company says it also will disclose its products' caffeine content.

Those changes will likely change Monster's classification from a dietary supplement to a regular beverage, allowing it to be regulated. Meanwhile, dieticians, consumer groups and people like Blake Montgomery want to see a change in energy drinks across the board.

"My profession is certainly pushing for more regulation," King said.

"The FDA needs to get involved and look at doing some kind of regulations on these. I mean if this did it to me at age 39, I can't imagine what it's doing to these kids that are getting hooked onto it when they're 14, 15, 16," Montgomery added.

After their trips to the emergency room, Blake Montgomery and Jessiqa Troxel are caffeine-free.

"I don't even drink them. I just...I can't do it," Troxel said.

"No more. Ever since that day (of my heart attack), I've cut out caffeine completely," said Montgomery.

If you can't do that, experts advise you to check the labels, research the ingredients and limit your amount.

"There are some that are better than others - the smaller serving sizes and the ones that don't have quite as much caffeine," King said.

Doctors say another alternative - just stick with a classic cup of joe or drink water because often, we lack energy simply because we're dehydrated.

FDA report on energy drinks