Red Bull or Can of Bull?

I’m going to go against the grain here and say that college students are healthier than is popularly believed.

Our diets? Nutritious and balanced. We eat from every part of the food pyramid — chips and fries (starches), dehydrated carrots in instant noodles (vegetables), strawberry sundae topping (fruits), and meat, meat and more meat…

Okay, so I might be wrong about the nutrition. But wait — at least we maintain a consistent liquid intake! Eight ounces a day? No problem. Take a look inside our fridges and you’ll find energy drinks such as Red Bull, Monster Energy, AMP Energy, Blue Bolt, and Full Throttle…

I stand corrected once more.

Still, there’s a point to be made here. As these energy drinks increasingly show up in young people’s diets, it’s easy to see that more and more fatigued college students are turning to them to boost productivity during those all-too-common all-nighters. But how did they become so pervasive in society today?

Though energy-boosting concoctions have abounded throughout history, the first official energy drink, the Irn-Bru, was marketed in 1901 in Scotland. A couple decades later, Britain’s Lucozade Energy appeared on the market in 1929; though originally promoted as a hospital drink to spur recovery in ailing patients, it was subsequently repackaged as an energy drink for “replenishing lost energy.”

In the 1960s, Lipovitan became Japan’s answer to the problem of fatigue. It predated similar products in Japan today, which scarcely resemble soft drinks because they are sold in brown glass medicine bottles. These “genki drinks” are directed toward the working professional.

Jolt Cola later entered the American market in 1985, boasting it had “all the sugar and twice the caffeine.” Major U.S. beverage companies later entered the foray in 1995 when PepsiCo introduced Josta, a guarana and caffeine based drink.

And of course, we can’t forget Red Bull. Originating from Thai energy drink Krating Daeng (Thai for “Red Bull”), it was developed under Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz. Mateschitz had tried Krating Daeng in Thailand in 1982 and found it helped cure his jet lag. Launched in 1987, Red Bull was introduced in the U.S. in 1997 and currently dominates the energy drink industry with a 47 percent market share. It is predicted that total market sales will hit $10 billion by 2010.

Not surprisingly, these sales are primarily driven by young people. According to research published on ResearchWiki.com and the Beverage Network Web site, 65 percent of energy drink consumers are 13 to 35 years old, and 65 percent are male as well. The Pennsylvania Medical Society conducted a 2008 Patient Poll finding that 20 percent of those polled between 21 and 30 years old had consumed energy drinks in high school or college to stay up later to complete schoolwork.

But are they safe for students, let alone for anyone?

Let’s start by taking a look at their ingredient composition. Such energy drinks typically include caffeine, B-vitamins, and stimulants such as guarana, acai, taurine, ginseng, creatine, and ginkgo biloba. Most are high in sugar.

Moreover, the effects of energy drinks are at best mixed. Studies report large improvements in mental performance and alertness with their consumption; tests in young, fit adults also show increased physical endurance. Another experiment found that drowsy individuals who ingested a glucose-based energy drink showed improvement in their driving.

However, according to the Mayo Clinic, excessive consumption can induce anxiety, irritability, insomnia, mood swings and decreased performance from caffeine withdrawal, and/or abnormal heart rhythms. Dehydration is highly likely because caffeine strips the body of water, and there is a risk of seizures during the “crashes” after the energy highs.

In short, there exists a definite risk of serious bodily harm from ingestion of energy drinks.

For instance, just this year, a school in Hove, England went so far as to ask local shops and convenience stores to refrain from selling energy drinks to students and to display posters discouraging students from buying the products. Noting the ample research showing that energy drink consumption can impede students’ focus in class, headmaster Malvina Sanders explained, “This was a preventative measure.”

Moreover, after 18-year-old Irish athlete Ross Cooney died from playing basketball after drinking four cans of Red Bull, France and Denmark banned the drink for a stretch of time. Britain also launched an investigation into the drink’s properties and warned pregnant women and children to abstain from its consumption.

It’s an inevitability that students will increasingly turn to energy drinks during their cram sessions in the weeks leading up to finals. But one must remember to limit consumption to safe amounts. According to an NPR article entitled “Coffee: A Little Really Does Go a Long Way,” the jittery behavior begins after consuming anywhere from 200 to 400 milligrams.

And sleeping once in a while doesn’t hurt, either, even for people as nutritionally balanced and healthy as us college students.