Energy drinks and products like caffeine-infused gums and chocolate bars are on Skeena Middle School’s radar, and the school could move towards being an “energy product” free zone.
“It’s something that I can see us having a conversation about at our school in the near future and I wouldn’t be surprised if other schools would do the same,” said Skeena principal Phil Barron, noting that the products can’t be bought at the school but students can still bring them into the building.
He hasn’t seen a huge increase in usage of drinks around the school this year, but the new products mean students can be more discrete with their use.
“The energy drink companies are putting it out in gum form, chocolate bar form, and the little tabs that you put on your tongue,” Barron said. “It seems like they’re coming up with some creative ways to put them in the hands of kids and obviously that can have a bit of an adverse effect on young people.”
Some of the documented ill effects of youth consuming these products include nausea, irritability, headaches, palpitations, and sleeplessness.
The products are supposed to carry warnings that they shouldn’t be consumed by pregnant women or children, and have recommendations on how many servings an adult should consume per day. The drinks can’t have more than 180 mg of caffeine, about the same as a cup of coffee.
Skeena wouldn’t be the first school to restrict the use of these products. Before Thornhill Junior Secondary closed last year it was an “energy drink free” school, but Barron said that didn’t stop students from going to the Chevron at lunch.
The situation at Skeena is a bit different – students can only leave the grounds at lunch if their parents have signed a consent form saying they can go home for lunch.
There’s renewed interest in energy drinks and products following an American study saying that emergency room visits related to high-caffeinated drinks have doubled over the past four years.
Health Canada is also beginning to collect information on the adverse effects of the drinks and is changing how they are classified and labelled by putting them under the food and beverage category.
“Before that they were considered a natural health product, and a natural health product doesn’t have to have a nutrition facts table on it,” says local Northern Health nutritionist Flo Sheppard, noting that these drinks often include “natural” stimulants as well as caffeine. “Now that they’re actually considered food, they will have to have a nutrition facts panel on it.”
A 2010 report from Health Canada states that 7 million energy drinks are sold per month in Canada, with use among teens and adolescents growing.
The popularity of these drinks could also be a matter of cultural changes among youth who are subjected to almost constant stimulus. The rise of gaming culture and the penchant for some gamers to stay up all night playing video games means they often turn to energy drinks to keep them awake, said Sheppard.
“That’s a change in our culture as well, even compared to 10 or 15 years ago,” she said. “We’ve got kids that are out working earlier that have more disposable income, and then they see things that are presented as norms – like going out for coffee – and it becomes part of what they do.”
And she says the effects of these products are widespread.
“Energy drinks are problematic because they are typically sugar-sweetened beverages, with the resultant dental and dietary problems. More of a concern, from my point of view, is that these beverages, as well as the pop, flavoured/sweetened waters, coffee-type drinks, fruit punches/cocktails, also displace beverages like milk (which is considered one of the most efficient sources of calcium and vitamin D for the North American population) and water.”
There’s no simple answer to getting children to stop consuming these products, said Sheppard.
“Sometimes by making something banned it adds more value and appeal to it. I think in the middle school population there is some appeal to it, and it has a bit of a cool factor, and that may be why kids adopt those practises,” she said. “You want to think about how to manage it that doesn’t add fuel to that fire of making it even more cool.”
Parents can emphasize sleep, exercise, drinking enough water and healthy food as ways to gain energy and to curb the use of energy products.
Schools now take steps to ensure healthy foods and beverages are available in their canteens.
And there is information on the products, and the effects of caffeine on children and teens, on Heath Canada’s website for parents to access if they want more information.
“Like with any issue you’re going to have a big range, of parents who know lots, parents who know little, and parents that it isn’t an issue, it hasn’t crossed their radar,” said Sheppard.