Are energy drinks safe for kids? Here’s what experts say.

Sophia Wesley
Sophia Wesley
7 Min Read

Panera Bread is facing a lawsuit from the family of a college student who died after drinking a heavily caffeinated beverage from the chain. Sarah Katz had a heart condition called Long QT Type 1 Syndrome that impacted her heartbeat, and avoided energy drinks and other highly caffeinated beverages as part of managing her condition, per the lawsuit.

As the lawsuit details, the 21-year-old drank Panera’s Charged Lemonade on Sept. 10, 2022, and died later that day. A 30-ounce version of the drink, which Katz ordered, contains about 390 milligrams of caffeine — the equivalent of about four cups of black coffee. Panera advertises the lemonade online as “plant-based and clean,” noting that it contains “about as much caffeine as our Dark Roast coffee,” but without specifying the serving size. The Food and Drug Administration is now “gathering information” about Katz’s death.

But Panera’s Charged Lemonade is far from the only caffeinated drink raising eyebrows lately. Prime Energy, which was founded by YouTuber Logan Paul and boxer KSI, has 200 milligrams per can — and it’s popular with kids. In July, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer even asked the FDA to investigate Prime due to its high caffeine content. “Prime is so new that most parents haven’t a clue about it, but it is born from the reels of social media and the enigmatic world of influencers,” he wrote in a letter to the FDA. “This product has so much caffeine in it that it puts Red Bull to shame. But, unlike Red Bull, this product has one true target market: children under the age of 18.”

Fellow energy drinks like Reign (300 milligrams of caffeine per can) and Ghost (200 milligrams of caffeine) are also getting attention for their high caffeine content and kid-friendly labels. How can parents navigate this safely? Experts break it down.

How worried should parents be about caffeinated drinks for kids?

While doctors stress that kids should not have caffeine, many of these drinks have been criticized for having marketing that seems to be aimed at children and teens. Though the FDA says that most adults can safely have up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, the guidance is very different for children.

“Pediatricians advise against caffeine for children under 12 and against any use of energy drinks for all children and teens,” Dr. Tracy Zaslow, a pediatrician and pediatric sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Life.

Dr. David Stone, a pediatric cardiologist at Corewell Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Lansing, Mich., tells Yahoo Life that the guidance around kids and caffeine is simple: “Avoid.”

What’s the concern? “Too much caffeine can cause tachycardia — increased heart rate — nausea, vomiting, headache and more,” says Jamie Alan, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University. “Very high doses can cause coma, seizures or high blood pressure.”

Children can have “significant side effects” from caffeine, Stone says, noting that “some patients are very sensitive to the effects of caffeine” and may not fare as well as others when they’re exposed to it. “But very few studies have been done in children [and caffeine],” Zaslow notes. “While caffeine appears safe for adults, caffeine may have different effects on children and adolescents. There are concerns about caffeine’s effects on the developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems.”

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) also lists the following as long-term effects of caffeine use in kids:

  • Sleep problems
  • Irritability and mood problems
  • Increased stress hormone levels
  • Needing higher doses of caffeine to achieve the desired effect
  • Cravings and withdrawal symptoms when everyday caffeine is stopped
  • Increased risk of panic, anger, violence, risk-taking and substance use problems
  • Increased sugar intake when using sugary caffeinated products

“Energy drinks pose a danger to young people who may not realize the large caffeine doses they are ingesting,” Zaslow says. The marketing behind these drinks can be confusing for children, and even parents, says Alan, who calls Panera’s language around its Charged Lemonade “very misleading.”

What age and serving size is appropriate for these drinks?

The American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly says in a guide on healthy beverages for kids that children should not have caffeinated drinks, while the AACAP suggests limiting caffeine in kids aged 12 and up to “at most” 100 milligrams a day.

What symptoms should parents watch out for?

The AACAP recommends parents be on the lookout for these symptoms of caffeine consumption in kids:

  • Insomnia
  • Jumpiness, hyperactivity and anxiety
  • Nausea and lack of appetite
  • Headache
  • Tremor and dizziness
  • Increased energy and reduced fatigue
  • Improved focus and task completion

“Patients tend to drink less water [when having energy drinks] and, in conjunction with the diuretic effect of caffeine, this can be a double whammy,” Stone says.

Symptoms of caffeine overdose can include these, per the AACAP:

  • Vomiting
  • High blood pressure
  • Racing heart
  • Heart rhythm problems
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations

How to talk to kids about energy drinks

Alan recommends talking to kids about energy drinks and why it’s important to avoid them, as opposed to just telling kids they can’t have them. “The caffeine content is far more than one might expect,” she says.

Zaslow also suggests educating kids on the difference between energy drinks and sports drinks, which they may also encounter regularly. “Sports drinks are flavored beverages that often contain carbohydrates, minerals, electrolytes — sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium — and sometimes vitamins or other nutrients,” she says. “Energy drinks are beverages that typically contain stimulants, such as caffeine and guarana, with varying amounts of carbohydrate, protein, amino acids, vitamins, sodium and other minerals.”

Overall, experts say kids — especially young children — should steer clear of energy drinks. “Avoid these charged beverages in children,” Alan says.

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