Sept. 26, 2005 — -- There's nothing new in marketing products to children, even products intended for adults. But doctors are concerned that a new sports drink containing caffeine and other substances, marketed to children as young as 4 years old, may have gone too far.
Spark, a product aimed at adults and teens manufactured by Advocare of Carrollton, Texas, contains 120 milligrams of caffeine -- roughly the same amount as a cup of coffee -- as well as 200 mg of taurine and 50 mg of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a compound with stimulant properties.
These ingredients are usually found in energy drinks and sports beverages intended for elite athletes.
KickStart Spark, a related product specifically marketed for children 4 years and older, contains even more gamma-aminobutyric acid (100 mg), 200 mg of taurine and 60 mg of caffeine.
"This is shameful marketing," said Madelyn H. Fernstrom, associate professor and director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center. "Under the guise of 'good health,' this is a promotion of caffeine consumption, which will likely have a biological effect on most children who consume it, since their intake is low."
Fernstrom acknowledges the levels of caffeine in both Spark and KickStart Spark are not inherently dangerous. "But there's nothing in this that's any good for you," she said.
"There's nothing that's redeeming in any of this stuff," Fernstrom added. "At the very least it's a huge waste of money."
Prices for KickStart Spark start at $13.95, according to the manufacturer's Web site. Spark can cost as much as $49.95 for a 42-serving canister.
The company does not grant interviews regarding its products, according to Advocare spokeswoman Cindy Depierri.
Doctors are also concerned that addictive stimulants like caffeine often have an unintended consequence for children -- insomnia.
"Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world. That's right, drug," said Dr. Judith Owens, head of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, R.I.
"Once in the body, caffeine will stay around for hours," Owens said. "It takes about six hours for one half of the caffeine to be eliminated, but it can last much longer in some folks, which is why caffeine, particularly later in the day, so often causes difficulty falling asleep and disrupted sleep."
Owens adds, "Am I the only one that finds it deeply disturbing that the leaders of tomorrow seem to need so badly to drug themselves to stay awake today?"
Many experts are also concerned that the drive to compete and win in any athletic event has created a generation dependent on dietary supplements and so-called "performance-enhancing" products.
"I see enough drug-addicted teenagers already, let's not get them started even earlier on caffeine!" said Dr. Robert A. Pendergrast Jr., associate professor of pediatrics and director of adolescent medicine at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.
"Even putting aside my concern for adverse effects on children's health -- including addiction -- from excessive regular doses of caffeine, it seems that we are sending an unambiguous societal message that drugs and artificial chemicals are necessary for human beings to perform their best," said Pendergrast.
"Recommending that children and adolescents use Spark may be a slippery slope toward the use of other performance-enhancing products, or even the abuse of illicit substances," said Dr. Susan M. Yussman, pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist.
"It seems to me that marketing Spark to children and adolescents is a ploy to enhance profits, not to enhance the health or sports performance of our children," Yussman said.