Amp, Monster, Red Bull, Spike Shooter, Redline — energy drinks for a new generation.

In 2006, more than 3 billion cans of Red Bull were sold in more than 130 countries. The two Austrian owners of the company that makes Red Bull both made the Forbes Magazine list of the wealthiest in the world — one of them in the top 300 — worth $2.5 billion.

Energy-drink marketing has created a profit-bearing behemoth. Companies selling these beverages are broadening their market share by targeting different age, sex, occupational and recreational groups with audience-specific labeling and marketing.

Now there are energy drinks for poker players (Pro Player), women (Go Girl Energy Drink) and spiritualists (Kabbalah Energy Drink), says Darin Ezra, CEO of PowerBrands, which develops marketing strategies for beverages. The whole category is rapidly evolving with offerings that "lift mood," "boost vitality" and act as "think drinks" with specific blends of nutrients.

Teenagers have been susceptible to the allure of energy drinks in their quest to define themselves as individuals. Advertising firms play into this lucrative youth market by sponsoring sports events, giving away samples, clothing, etc.

Unfortunately, kids are less aware of the risks of overdoing energy drinks and more susceptible to the hype. And that's a problem because these energy-entrepreneurs are capitalizing at the expense of your liver, pancreas, heart, brain and future. People who consume energy drinks regularly and in excess will pay a price over time.

Granted, there is a time and place for energy drinks. For a long-haul trucker or night-shift worker, the energy drink may be a trusted ally. As a health educator, I'd suggest we save these supercharged beverages for extraordinary circumstances when we really need one.

Acute reactions to the ever-present stimulant in energy drinks — caffeine — have been occurring. Educators and doctors are calling for banning them from schools.

The short-term risks of energy-drink consumption pale in comparison with those of the long-term. Asked whether energy drinks will contribute to the diabetes epidemic, as soft drinks are known to do, New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle says, "studies don't distinguish one kind of sugary drink from another. They are basically all the same."

The major health risks of energy-drink consumption, according to Nestle, are "extra and unnecessary calories and lots of unnecessary caffeine."

The American Diabetes Association, recently held focus groups to assess Americans' understanding of the disease, its gravity and pervasiveness. According to the ADA's chief executive, Larry Hausner, "The general consensus seems to be, 'There's medication,' 'Look how good people look with diabetes' or 'I've never heard of anybody dying of diabetes.' "

Asked to rank various diseases and illnesses on a severity scale of 1 to 10, study participants consistently gave 9s and 10s to cancer and heart disease, but they gave diabetes only 4s and 5s. This study involved adults. If the study had been focused on children, diabetes would almost certainly have received even lower danger scores.

The reality is that diabetes gets increasingly dreadful and painful as it progresses, and U.S. disease rates are surging, a trend not helped by sky-rocketing sales of sugar-laden energy drinks.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the number of Americans with diabetes had grown to about 8 percent of the population, 24 million people. Almost 25 percent of those aged 60 and older had diabetes in 2007. Roughly 57 million people have abnormal blood-sugar levels that qualify as pre-diabetes, according to the CDC.

Diabetes is known to cause deterioration of the entire body, but notable features that may strike a chord with teens and young adults include loss of hearing, eyesight and erectile function. Diabetes can also lead to painful tingling and burning in the extremities, known as neuropathy, and ultimately amputations and kidney failure.

Current estimates are that kids are getting approximately 15 percent of their total daily caloric intake from beverages, mostly soft drinks, juices and energy drinks. Unfortunately, these beverages are notoriously low in nutrients.

Compare, for example, a slice of watermelon and a 12-ounce soft drink. Though they both have about 150 calories, the watermelon contains vitamins, phytochemicals and fiber, whereas the soda offers zero nutritional bang for the caloric buck. Though many energy drinks contain some added vitamins and nutrients, they don't outweigh the extra sugar load.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness in Medford and the Centre for Natural Healing in Ashland. He also teaches at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous. E-mail him at michael@ventanawellness.com.

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