• Jan Clementson

Energy Drinks; Ticking Timebombs?

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 ene