Over the past few months, you may have heard a growing call for the banning of energy drink sales to children. Not surprising. Following on from concerns of the impact of sugar and caffeine in children, the topic was raised in Parliament earlier this year when the MP Maria Caulfield called for a ban on high-caffeine energy drinks following the tragic suicide of a 25 year old. The family in this case were convinced that their son’s habit of drinking 15 cans a day had increased his anxiety and contributed to his death.
This growing public concern has been heeded by most UK supermarkets with the introduction of a self-imposed ban that will take effect throughout March. Retailers will limit the sale of energy drinks containing more than 150mg of caffeine per litre to under-16s. Where does the UK Government stand on the issue? In response to Maria Caulfield, the Prime Minister highlighted the forthcoming tax on sugar-sweetened drinks (coming into force next month) and that with regards to high-caffeine energy drinks “the government continues to look at the evidence”.
So, is there any real justification for a national ban on energy drinks per se or for children in particular?
The short answer? There is compelling evidence to justify such a ban. The longer answer?Read on to find out more.
What Are Energy Drinks And How Do They Differ From Soft Or Sports Drinks?
Energy drinks are fortified beverages with added dietary supplements. They differ from soft or sports drinks in that they contain higher levels of caffeine (which is their main ingredient), in addition to sugars and other dietary supplements (including ginseng, guarana and taurine). As much as 80-300mg of caffeine and 35g processed sugar are commonly present per 250mL serving. According to the Food Standards Agency, it is usually around 80mg per 250mL can, which is similar to the amount of caffeine in 3 cans of cola or a mug of instant coffee. However, some of the smaller ‘energy shot’ products can contain anywhere from 80mg to 160mg of caffeine in a 60ml bottle; whilst the 500mL cans generally contain around 150-160mg.
Who are the Main Consumers of Energy Drinks?
A 2013 study conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) showed that adolescents are the greatest consumers of energy drinks, with a whopping 68% of them consuming them; whereas only 30% of adults were found to consume them. Of the adolescent group, for those aged between 3-10 years these drinks accounted for 43% of their total caffeine exposure. The study also revealed that a major driver for consuming these drinks was in conjunction with sporting activity (52% adults and 41% of adolescents). This would suggest that many believe the marketing hype of the manufacturers that these drinks do improve energy. Yet, an extensive 2014 research review found there was insufficient scientific evidence to support manufacturers claims.
So why make these claims? Let’s take a look at how caffeine works in the body.
Why Does Caffeine Perk You Up?
Caffeine is a known stimulant of the central nervous system (CNS) and is the most commonly used psychoactive drug in the world that is legal and unregulated. It has been shown to have both positive and negative effects – depending upon frequency of use, dosage and other factors. It is a known ergogenic aid that can enhance performance in high-intensity exercise by delaying fatigue, yet it is also toxic in high doses and has been linked with several adverse health conditions.
First, let’s consider it’s mechanism of action in the body…..
Prominently, it reversibly blocks the action of the brain neurotransmitter adenosine (which promotes sleep) by preventing it from attaching to its receptor. Adenosine plays a role in the sleep-wake cycle, building up during the day to promote sleepiness later in the evening. But it also signals tiredness or sleepiness to the brain when your cellular energy stores are running low – so, generally, after there has been a high-energy demand. Because caffeine blocks adenosine signalling to the brain, it delays the onset of fatigue, which makes you more alert and energetic. But this is only temporary. It is not providing you with extra energy – it is simply masking an energy-deficit and covering up drowsiness symptoms by blocking the signals that your ‘energy tanks’ are running low. It takes only 45 minutes to be metabolised but its effects can last from between 4-6 hours.
To summarise, caffeine does not increase energy, it simply masks as energy deficit by blocking the signals to the brain that you are short of energy and need more fuel.
Here’s a great TED-Ed video that explains how caffeine affects the brain. Just click on the image below to watch the video......
Is Caffeine Safe?
Caffeine levels are generally recognised as safe below 400mg per day for adults, whereas toxic doses can range from 3-10g/day for an adult according to research. What about children? Do they differ? EFSA published a Scientific Opinion Paper in 2015 advising that daily intakes of up to 3mg/kg of body weight for children and adolescents (3-18 years) are safe. Yet a 2017 study in the Journal of Paediatric Child Health suggested that caffeinated-energy drinks might affect children and adolescents more than adults because they weigh less and, therefore, experience greater exposure to stimulant ingredients per kilogram of body weight. This study also suggests that such drinks pose potential risks for the health of children and adolescents and are unnecessary for play-based physical activity.
Confused? Let’s muddy the waters a little more…..
A 2012 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association argued that the effects of caffeine on the body are individual and are linked with individual metabolism, lifestyle and environmental factors. Meaning that caffeine affects people in different ways depending upon their unique metabolism and circumstances. So, no ‘one size’ recommendation fits all. Furthermore, a 2017 randomised controlled trial in the Journal of American Heart Association compared the effects of caffeine alone to energy drinks with the same caffeine content. It found energy drinks to have worse cardiovascular effects than caffeine alone and suggested that this might be related to other non-caffeine ingredients.
So, now we are looking at multiple factors in energy drinks that can impact health. And we haven’t even touched upon the sugar content – which a 2014 review article positively associated with overweight and obesity, as well as increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease - let alone the possibility that these multiple ingredients may actually potentiate the effects of each other.
Let’s take a closer look at some common symptoms from too much caffeine.
Top 10 Caffeine Overdose Symptoms
There are many common symptoms that indicate too much caffeine consumption but here are the most prevalent. in order from the first ones to be experienced to the more severe, later stage consequences.
Jitters, restlessness and nervousness
Increased heartbeat (tachycardia)
Heart palpitations (arrhythmia)
These symptoms should be recognised as an early warning system. Further caffeine intake should be stopped to avoid more serious and even life-threatening situations.
Where Do We Currently Stand?
Current European regulations (which came into force in December 2014) require the labelling of beverages (including energy drinks) with a caffeine content of more than 150 mg/litre. This labelling must include the following: “High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breast-feeding women” followed by a quantitative indication of the product’s caffeine content. This approach has been adopted universally across the EU, but was applied voluntarily by industry in the UK by the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) from 2010. The BDSA code also states that the words “consume moderately” or similar should be included on labels of high caffeine soft drinks and that high caffeine soft drinks should not be promoted or marketed to those under 16. This marketing ban is in line with the American Medical Association 2013 policy of supporting such a ban on under-18s.
There is clear recognition of safety concerns for the excess consumption of energy drinks. But is this really sufficient to protect the public and children in particular? How many adults, let alone children, really understand the implications of drinking too many of these drinks? As of this month, energy drinks containing caffeine of more than 150mg/litre will not be sold to children under 16 in the major supermarkets. But this raises two issues: (1) 250mL cans do not contain that amount and so will remain freely available; meaning that children will still be able to purchase more than one can if they use different outlets; and (2) apart from Boots, the other smaller shops that sell these drinks have not yet agreed to a self-imposed ban; meaning that they will still be freely available.
The evidence is clearly mounting against their suitability for children in particular. So, what might the alternatives be?
Are There Any Healthy Alternatives To Energy Drinks?
These drinks are being marketed to promote energy and the studies show that many use these as an energy aid in conjunction with sporting activities. So we must start with the basic premise that people are turning to energy drinks because they need an energy boost. Why is it that people need these artificial energy stimulants? You need look no further than our current diet and lifestyle for these answers. The rise of highly processed junk food high in sugars and damaged fats, with few micro-nutrients; along with inactivity, sleep deprivation and stress has led to an ‘energy crisis’ and the growing rise of energy related disorders. These range from obesity (excess energy storage) to metabolic syndrome (a disorder of energy utilisation and storage), which encompasses abdominal obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol; along with an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. To address the cause of this ‘energy crisis’ is the need to address our current diet and lifestyle behaviours.
But change is difficult for everyone and knowing where to start can be difficult. There is so much conflicting advice that it can seem like a minefield. Here are some easy tips to get you started:
Top Tips to Improve your Energy Levels Naturally
Avoid processed or refined foods – such as white grains (bread, pasta, rice) and their flour products; sweets, pastries, cakes, biscuits, sugary drinks, ready meals.
Include protein with every meal or snack – either animal or vegetarian sources.
Eat good fats every day – such as Omega-3 fats in oily fish, nuts and seeds.
Eat little and often– helps to balance blood sugar and energy levels.
Eat breakfast within an hour of getting up – kick starts your metabolism.
Get into a routine – sets your body clock.
But what if you really need just a quick boost of energy? Then give your body the fuel it needs for energy, which is carbohydrates in their most natural form. Fruits are Nature’s natural snacks as they will provide a quick energy supply. But they need to be eaten in their natural form or in the form of a smoothie, not a juice. Juices have the fruit fibre removed, which is especially important for slowing down the food absorption to ensure a steady energy supply. Make sure, though, that you also combine this with some protein - such as a handful of nuts - which slows down absorption further. Slow food absorption is key to sustained energy release.
By actually supplying the fuel that your body needs to make energy, you will increase your energy levels, rather than just masking the symptoms of low energy.
Should the UK Government introduce a ban on energy drinks?
There is certainly compelling evidence to warrant serious consideration for a total ban of energy drinks in relation to children. Too much evidence is stacking up against them. However, a total ban for all might be going too far towards a ‘nanny state’. Similar dangers can be highlighted with regards to alcohol consumption or smoking, yet as adults we should have the right to make our own informed choices. Whilst I would wholeheartedly support a ban on such drinks for children, what I think is also necessary is clear consumer education on the effects of these drinks. Just having such awareness and understanding helps us all make our own informed choices.
What are your views? Do you think energy drinks should be banned – just for children or a blanket ban? I would love to hear your thoughts on this emotive subject.
Registered Nutritional Therapist
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