Energy drinks — sweet drinks containing caffeine and often herbal supplements — have been drawing scrutiny over their nutritional value. Now the nation’s largest group of pediatricians is strongly recommending that they not be consumed by children.

“Rigorous review and analysis of the literature reveal that caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents,” wrote Marcie Schneider and Holly Benjamin of American Academy of Pediatrics in a review of both energy drinks, which include brand names such as Red Bull and Monster, and sports drinks.

The authors said parents and physicians need to know more about the distinctions between energy drinks and sports drinks (sweet drinks, including Powerade and Gatorade, that contain electrolytes). Sports drinks are all right for young athletes, they said.

They also called for industry improvement.

Benjamin, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at the University of Chicago, told MyHealthNewsDaily, “We certainly think in the interest of our children, improvements can be done in the labeling of these types of beverages.”

What to watch for

A common thing to watch for, Benjamin said, is whether a can of the beverage, which may be consumed in one sitting, contains more than one serving.

While the AAP statement recommended against children consuming any energy drinks, the authors noted that sports drinks should be consumed by certain children who burn off the calories they consume.

Benjamin explained that athletes who exercise regularly at high intensity have a need to replenish electrolytes. “Sports drinks do have a place, but it’s in a small population. Parents need to understand that, and so do doctors.”

Beyond that group of athletes, however, sports drinks can be one of many contributors to obesity in children.

“Basically, the biggest problem with obesity is kids are taking too many calories in in their diet and they’re not able to burn off all of those calories every day, and so they gain weight,” Benjamin said. “Kids are not just overeating, but they are drinking high-calorie beverages.”

Even milk and juice should be limited in favor of water. “Just like you shouldn’t drink three cans of cola a day, frankly you shouldn’t drink three cups of juice a day,” Benjamin said. [11 Surprising Things That Can Make Us Gain Weight ]

No disagreement

In February, the journal Pediatrics published a review of energy drinks from the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine that pointed to potential problems with their consumption. The authors looked at the caffeine content as well as the herbal supplements the drink can contain, and noted that some children had to be treated at poison control centers.

Steven Lipshultz, chairman of pediatrics at Miami and one of the February study’s authors, said:  “We were in a position of saying we didn’t see a therapeutic benefit ... and we saw evidence of real side effects and toxicities. We discouraged the use in children, adolescents and young adults."

Lipshultz said of the new review: "By their reviewing our work and others, in some ways this is independent confirmation of the conclusions that we had, and basically they’re very direct here and surprisingly strong, but I think appropriately so.”

The American Beverage Association issued a response that largely affirmed the statements of the AAP, both in the role of sports drinks and advisory against energy drinks for children.

In the association's statement, senior vice president Maureen Storey said the industry has taken steps to limit where its drinks are available and said: “We agree with the authors that sports drinks and energy drinks are very different beverage choices and, as such, should be assessed and marketed differently and to different audiences. In fact, we support the American Academy of Pediatrics’ position that there is a need to improve the education of children, adolescents and their parents on the differences between the two.

“Sports drinks have a long history of scientific research showing their benefits for hydration, which is necessary for overall health and wellness. These functional beverage products contain electrolytes and were created to help athletes and other active people hydrate before, during and after exercise. As with all foods and beverages, they should be consumed in moderation.

“Energy drinks are nonalcoholic beverages that are specifically marketed with an energizing effect and a unique combination of characterizing ingredients. While their ingredients and labeling comply fully with all regulatory requirements, they are not intended for young consumers.”