First published Spring 2019


 

Study authors have found insufficient evidence to make it illegal to sell energy drinks to children, yet would welcome voluntary action including exclusion zones. James Billot writes

 

Despite several supermarkets imposing their own bans on selling energy drinks to under-16s, the Science and Technology Committee’s Energy Drinks and Children Report, published in December last year, concluded that there wasn’t enough “quantitative evidence” to warrant making their sale to children illegal, potentially halting any government plans for legislation.

The report advised that it was currently unclear whether energy drinks were more harmful than other soft drinks. Yet, despite this, it welcomed any voluntary action — including exclusion zones — taken by schools, retailers and local communities that could reduce the consumption of energy drinks by children. It also recognised that despite its main findings, that “it might be legitimate” for the experiences of teachers and other groups (“qualitative evidence”) to lead to a statutory ban.1

As a result, the government faces the decision as to whether it should act now, or wait for further evidence.

According to the report, children in the UK are the largest consumers of energy drinks in Europe. Between 2012 and 2017, the market ballooned by 19 per cent and globally it is predicted by business analysts to increase by 3.7 per cent year-on-year over the next five years. But in spite of this rise, there has been no long-term research into the effects of energy drinks. Although warnings have come from sources such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), so far only one country in the EU, Lithuania, has banned the sale of energy drinks to minors.

Main issues

The NHS defines energy drinks as soft drinks with high levels of caffeine, taurine (an amino acid) and vitamins. They also contain high levels of sugar: while a 330 ml can of Coca-Cola has 32 mg of caffeine and 35 g of sugar per can, a 473 ml can of Red Bull has 151 mg of caffeine and 52 g of sugar. However, it is their high caffeine content that the NHS, EFSA and WHO links to a number of health and behavioural problems. 

“The main issues are the level of sleep deprivation, hyperactivity and bad behaviour in the classroom,” says Kawther Hunt, a registered nutritionist at charity group Action on Sugar. “But there is also a link between risky behaviour and energy drink consumption, which can include under-age alcohol consumption and drug use.”

Whilst risky behaviour in children such as drinking alcohol and smoking was found by the committee to be associated with drinking energy drinks, there was no evidence that one actually caused the other. The committee also could not confirm that children’s drinking habits were significantly different for energy drinks over other caffeinated drinks such as tea or coffee. That is not to suggest there is parity between the two: while a 250 ml cup of coffee contains 95 mg of caffeine, a 550 ml can of Relentless Origin or 550 ml can of Monster Juiced has 160 mg of caffeine, which is more than the daily recommended caffeine allowance that is considered safe for children up to the age of 14. 

Instead of banning energy drinks, we should be educating the public on the underlying root causes of their fatigue...

Health toll

This high level of caffeine and sugar combined takes a heavy toll on the body, according to Tracy Tredoux, a registered nutritional therapist. “Sugar from energy drinks breaks down in the body very quickly into glucose, causing blood sugar levels to spike,” she says.

“Insulin is released from the pancreas to take glucose out of the bloodstream and deliver it to the cells where it is needed. When the cells are saturated and don’t need any more glucose, it is stored in the liver and finally in fat cells.”

Tredoux goes on to explain how this affects blood sugar highs and lows. “When high levels of glucose are taken out too quickly, blood sugar levels drop, which causes an energy crash. As a result, the body craves more of the food or drink that puts glucose in the body quickly, which leads to a sugar roller coaster of spikes and dips throughout the day.”

QUANTITATIVE VS. QUALITATIVE — STRENGTH IN NUMBERS?

 

What is unusual in the committee’s recommendations is the weight it has given to the experiences of communities or adults who work with children. Because experience is difficult to measure — so is considered ‘qualitative’ — in scientific research it tends to carry less weight than ‘quantitative’ data that can be counted, measured and statistically analysed.

Another problem with reviewing evidence is that committees can only look at what already exists. The fact that there is insufficient evidence does not necessarily mean that studies have found that energy drinks do not affect children’s behaviour; it may simply mean that not enough studies exist.

In its recommendations, the committee calls for the government to commission independent research to establish “whether energy drinks have more harmful effects than other soft drinks containing caffeine in order to support evidence-based decision-making”. 1

 

School daze

In the classroom, these spikes and dips cause teachers headaches of their own, says Holly Parkinson, a teacher at Broadway Academy in Birmingham. “Before we put our own ban in force, I had lessons where pupils were bouncing off the walls one day and sleeping on their desks the next.

“Almost every time, there were empty energy drink bottles in their bags and I have no doubt that this is what caused their bad behaviour.”

After nearly all major supermarkets banned the sale of energy drinks to children under 16 last year, Broadway Academy was one of many schools to follow suit. “It has got better since the ban,” says Parkinson. “But the problem hasn’t been completely eradicated. It can lead to confrontations with the students when we try to confiscate the drinks.”

Part of the appeal of energy drinks to children is their low cost. If bought in packs, energy drinks can be as cheap as 30p per bottle, which suits children who have “quite limited pocket money” says Kawther Hunt. 

But their appeal is also driven by huge advertising campaigns, which gives energy drinks companies exposure to young audiences. Red Bull, the largest energy drinks company with a 40 per cent market share, sponsors extreme sports such as BMX biking and Formula 1 — once prime placements for the tobacco and alcohol industries — while Monster opts for live gaming events where there is a primarily young and male audience.

Addiction

According to government figures, two-thirds of 10 to 17-year-olds and a quarter of six to nine-year-olds consume energy drinks.2 But some young people feel like they are left with no choice. School pressure and exams are forcing pupils to stay up later at night and energy drinks allow them to stay awake, says 17-year-old Medhi. “I don’t particularly like the taste of energy drinks, but when I am studying, I need the extra boost they give. It is the only way I can concentrate”.

Joseph, 18, agrees. “We are always told not to do this and not to do that, but we are given exams and tests pretty much every month,” he says.

“The whole process is just exhausting and we need the energy from those drinks.”

Tracy Tredoux is sympathetic to students like Medhi and Joseph, but she believes that a more “proactive approach” to dealing with children’s consumption of energy drinks is required. “Alcohol, narcotic and cigarette laws have not prevented teenagers from using them,” she says. 

ENERGY BOOSTS

 

Avoid caffeine after midday. Caffeine lingers in the system for several hours meaning that a caffeinated drink in the afternoon can disrupt sleep that night.

Aim to have a balance of protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates with each meal to prevent blood sugar dips.

Dehydration can lead to tiredness, so make sure you drink enough water.

There’s nothing like good quality, regular sleep. It might be tempting to sit up all night and chat, binge-watch TV or study, but missing out on sleep during the night will impact energy levels the next day, leading to cravings for stimulants such as caffeine and sugar.

Keep screens out of bedrooms to avoid the temptation to check messages during the night.

 

“Instead of banning energy drinks, we should be educating the public on the underlying root causes of their fatigue, energy slumps and lack of ability to focus and concentrate, such as poor nutrition, lack of sleep and exercise, and excess stress leading to excessive use.”

Meanwhile, calls for more research could be compared to those by the tobacco industry when there was already sufficient evidence of harm.

Kawther Hunt says that stories from teachers and a rise in diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity highlight the need for a ban.

“We are finally seeing some attention from government because we need to see a change in these health figures,” she says. 

“Educating people while they’re in an environment that is always encouraging them to have energy drinks is just not achieving anything right now. 

“We have to enforce a ban — that is how we will get real change.”

 

Red Bull and Monster but did not respond when approached for comment.

 

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References

  1. www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/science-and-technology-committee/news-parliament-2017/energy-drinks-children-report-published-17-19/
  2. Dept of Health and Social Care (2018). Consultation on proposal to end sale of energy drinks to children, 1-12 assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/736398/consultation-on-ending-the-sale-of-energy-drinks-to-children.pdf