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Local coalition takes aim at health risks of energy drinks

Energy drinks will be the topic of a community presentation held twice Thursday by the Kandiyohi County Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Coalition and the Region 5 Prevention Center. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- They come in cans with aggressive-looking labels and names like Rockstar, Monster Energy and Cocaine.

Kids like them, but they -- and their parents -- may not realize the effects of consuming energy drinks supercharged with caffeine.

Authorities have become concerned enough to start including information about energy drinks in the DARE curriculum taught to Willmar grade-school students, says Julie Asmus of the Willmar Police Department.

"The issue is about the amount of caffeine and what it does to your body," she said.

She's especially alarmed at the young ages at which some kids are consuming energy drinks.

"It's important that parents understand what is in these drinks," she said.

The Kandiyohi County Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Coalition is taking aim at energy drinks with some public education to help parents and teens understand what exactly they're chugging down in one of these high-octane drinks.

The group has invited Rick Moldenhauer, a treatment services consultant with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, to give two local presentations Thursday on energy drinks.

"We're hoping to bring newer, accurate information to the community," said Rick Loseth, coordinator of the multi-agency coalition.

Although energy drinks have been marketed for several years, it has only been recently that more attention is being paid to their health implications.

The drinks often contain high amounts of caffeine, in some cases significantly higher than coffee or soft drinks. They might be amped up with guarana, which is another stimulant, or with extra sugar. There have been some reports of children and teens becoming dizzy or nauseated from too much caffeine, or "crashing" from caffeine withdrawal.

The risks can become magnified when energy drinks are mixed with alcohol.

"It's like putting a stimulant and a depressant into your body at the same time. It's not a good thing," said Carmen Clementson, supervisor for mental health programs with Kandiyohi County Family Services.

Officials haven't seen any worrisome local trends in energy drink consumption. But they note that the drinks are increasingly popular among children, teens and young adults.

"We do know from sales trends in general, energy drinks have been increasing their market share," Loseth said.

"Kids are all about energy drinks," said Renee Brandt, regional prevention coordinator with Project Turnabout. "It's the whole caffeine thing."

Widespread consumption of coffee and caffeine-containing soft drinks may have blunted the public's perception of caffeine as a chemical stimulant, she and Loseth said.

"A lot of the brain research that's going on has really helped us understand the effect of chemicals on the brain," Loseth said. "Then when you take mega-doses of caffeine and mix it with alcohol, the unknowns that are coming from that is part of the equation."

"I'm just amazed at how many combinations of things kids are using with energy drinks that we never think about," Brandt agreed. "A lot of people don't get the chemical part."

By bringing in Moldenhauer, who is one of the few people in Minnesota to have done in-depth study on energy drinks and the effects of consuming them, the Alcohol and Drug Coalition hopes to "get ahead of the curve and influence trends in a positive way," Loseth said.

"We're not saying, 'Don't drink.' We're saying, 'If you choose to drink, understand what you're drinking,'" he said. "If that generates some conversation at home with your kids, whether it's at the dinner table or standing around the kitchen counter, I think that's fantastic. The best-case scenario in prevention is conversations between kids and parents."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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