By Vanessa Santilli
Bobby Cowan, a third-year geography student, doesn’t care that his energy drink has four times the amount of caffeine as a can of Coca-Cola. In fact, that’s why he buys it.
But maybe he should care.
A study by experts at Johns Hopkins University calls for product label warnings about the risk of energy drinks due to their high caffeine content, ranging from 50 milligrams to 550 mg per can. The average cup of coffee contains 65 mg.
That study, and others like it, is helping to bring attention to the unknown threat all the Red Bulls and Rockstars pose to university students.
“There is tremendous pressure for marks, excellence, working in the community, being active, not over-eating; I think sometimes these products are like a proxy to something else,” says Janet Chappell, Director of the School of Nutrition.
The Johns Hopkins experts found that the high caffeine levels in energy drinks could cause caffeine intoxication, an effect which includes nervousness, anxiety, insomnia and tremors.
Chappell says these products symbolize the increasingly unrealistic expectations placed on university students.
“We should ask ourselves why students are taking these products in the first place.”
Of course, most students know the answer to that question: energy drinks help them survive. In between part-time jobs and interships, school falls by the wayside. The promise of a canful of liquid energy can be hard to deny.
Registered dietician Susie Langley has some advice for students who turn to these energy drinks in tough times: get educated.
“If you’ve got to stay up all night to cram for an exam, be smart. Use real food and use it to your advantage,” Langley says. Good examples of this kind of food are fish like salmon and fruits and vegetables.
“If you have a meal that has protein and carbohydrates in it, your energy level is going to last a lot longer than if you skip supper and have three Red Bulls.”
Johnny Rockets, a diner outside Toronto Life Square, has Red Bull on display in a glass case at the entrance. Metro has a large fridge of Red Bull near the checkout counter. At half the size, Red Bull has 80 mg of caffeine per can. But take note: it has the same dosage of caffeine as Full Throttle and Rockstar, if an equal quantity of each drink was measured.
“Students need to be watchful of themselves and their friends who are consuming energy drinks because they have serious side effects,” Langley says.
Caffeine sensitive students should be even more careful, says Chappell.
“There are lots of us who can drink a fair amount of caffeine and have a fair amount of tolerance. But a huge percentage of the population is very sensitive,” she says.
“If they’re with their friends who say they drank two and it let them finish an assignment, students need to know that their response might be different than their friends.”
And don’t be fooled by the natural health product label found on the can of some energy drinks.
“Just because it says all natural, doesn’t mean it’s healthy or toxin-free,” Langley says.
The absence of a Nutrition Facts Label is also a cause of concern for Langley. Many of these products don’t have this label, which includes calories, protein and other nutritional information per serving.
Both Full Throttle and Rockstar have no label on their cans. This nutritional information can be found on their websites.
While the brands on campus have caffeine content warnings, all are written in very small print.
“Although some of these drinks include warnings, you can’t even see them, they’re not legible,” Langley says.
In general, Chappell feels these beverages demand much closer scrutiny.
“There will always be another product like this,” she says.
“It masks the real issue: students feel they need to stay energized in a fast-paced world. I think that needs to be deconstructed as much as these products should be.”