Concerns about the negative impact of energy drinks (ED’s) have arisen in recent years both in the scientific community and among the public. The risks posed to health by the consumption of ED’s are primarily related to their high caffeine content.
ED’s have proven to be especially popular amongst children, adolescents, and young adults and aggressive marketing has led to an exponential growth in sales. This article takes a closer look at ED’s and their potentially harmful effects.
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What are energy drinks?
There is no standard definition for “energy drinks” or ED’s for short. But they are characterized as highly sweetened, caffeinated, and non-alcoholic. These beverages are stimulating in effect, given they contain very high levels of caffeine ––which can typically be around 80mg per serving.
ED’s are not only made to taste good, but they are well-known to enhance energy levels, physical alertness, and performance. They also pose the risk of caffeine intoxication. Besides caffeine, ED’s typically comprise the highly active ingredients of taurine, guarana, ginseng, L-carnitine and glucuronolactone, and sweeteners. These act as stimulants. They also function as a mood elevator when mixed with alcohol.
The demand for and consumption of ED’s has markedly increased in recent years and has resulted in a multi-million-dollar international market. The most popular brands are Red Bull, Monster, Rockstar, and 5-hour energy drink, though there are around 300 varieties of ED on the international market.
Who consumes ED’s?
The target market for energy drinks is people of all ages, excluding those under the age of 16, for example, in the UK.
The drinks have been promoted on the health market and have been aimed at specific groups such as athletes and college or university students. Even so, the drinks do not provide sufficient levels of rehydration or restoration of electrolytes in relation to sporting activity, though they do enhance energy.
In this, they are a class apart from sports drinks, though the two are frequently confused with one another. For university students, the appeal of these drinks is to improve performance, concentration, and endurance. They are frequently used to prohibit sleep during periods of intense study, for example in preparation for tests and examinations.
This relatively new kind of beverage was first launched in Japan in 1960, introduced into Europe in 1987, and in the USA in 1997. ED’s have proven popular in the Indian market where they are sold as energy shots and dietary supplements as well as in their standard drink form.
ED’s have become increasingly popular amongst adolescents, in part a result of youth-targeted marketing. Advertising campaigns include the sponsorship of events that appeal to this age group (e.g., snowboarding) and product placement in video games and social media.
Components of energy drinks ––what are they?
- Caffeine ––an alkaloid as well as being a stimulant provides a pleasant taste
- Taurine ––stimulates the central nervous system
- Guarana ––a South African herb contains theobromine, theophylline, saponins, flavonoids, tannins and boasts twice the concentration of caffeine in comparison to coffee beans. It’s used for enhancing energy levels and it causes an increase in mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as dopamine
- Ginseng enhances memory
- L-carnitine is sometimes also used to increase energy and to speed up the metabolic rate
- Glucuronolactone is a naturally occurring metabolite made from glucose and is sometimes added to alleviate fatigue and promote well-being
- Sugar or sweeteners, such as aspartame and acesulfame potassium
The ingestion of ED’s over time can lead to negative effects, for example, behavioral changes. Certain ingredients should only be ingested in moderation. For example, caffeine and ginseng.
The high amount of caffeine in ED’s has a diuretic effect on the body leading to the loss of fluid in the form of urine. Caffeine intoxication causes nausea, vomiting, heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure, convulsions, and psychosis which in some circumstances can prove lethal.
Ginseng or Panax Ginseng, (also sometimes used), when consumed excessively can lead to vaginal bleeding, diarrhea, severe headache, and Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS) ––a rare and serious disorder of the skin and mucous membranes.
Internationally, regulatory bodies have imposed policies regarding the composition, labeling, distribution, and sale of ED’s. The appeal ED’s for young people and adolescents has been of particular concern. So far little research has been done on the associations between ED consumption and the initiation of other drug use ––for example, tobacco and alcohol.
In 2019 the UK government, for example, came under pressure to ban the sale of ED’s to children, leading to major supermarkets calling time on selling ED’s to those under the age of 16. The drinks contain an advisory note stating that they are ‘not recommended for children.’ The market varies, with other countries deeming the drinks to be unsuitable to those under 18, for example in Latvia and Lithuania.
In terms of regular caffeine consumption, The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) gives a safety level of 3 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight per day for children and adolescents. But the average ED comes in a 250 ml can and, with around 80mg of caffeine per serving, easily contains the equivalent caffeine content of three cans of cola or a strongly brewed cup of coffee.
On top of this, non-diet versions also contain more than twice the sugar and calories of the average soft drink.
Numerous case studies are confirming the adverse health effects posed by ED’s including actual recorded instances of lethality. More research is yet needed into ED’s, the worrying uptake by young people, and the public health risks they essentially pose.
- Arthur, R. (2019). UK ban’s sale of energy drinks to U16s [Online] Beverage Daily.com. Available at: https://www.beveragedaily.com/Article/2019/07/23/UK-government-bans-sale-of-energy-drinks-to-U16s
- Breda, J. et al. (2014) Energy drink consumption in Europe: a review of the risks, adverse health effects, and policy options to respond. Frontiers in Public Health.DOI: 10.3389/fpubh.2014.00134
- Kaur, J. et al. (2019) Energy drinks: health effects and consumer safety. Nutrition and Food Science. DOI: 10.1108/NFS-11-2018-0331
- Galimov, A. (2020) Association of energy drink consumption with substance-use initiation among adolescents: A 12-month longitudinal study. Journal of Psychopharmacology. DOI: 10.1177/0269881119895545
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Last Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Dr. Nicola Williams
I’m currently working as a post-doctoral fellow in the History of Science at the Leeds and Humanities Research Institute (LAHRI), at the University of Leeds. Broadly speaking my research area falls within the remit of the history of biology and history of technology in the twentieth century. More specifically I have specialist knowledge in the areas of electron microscopy and cellular and molecular biology, women in science and visual culture.
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