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The truth about energy drinks

These highly-caffeinated beverages remain popular, despite being the subject of health warnings. Our dietitian Orla Walsh takes a closer look at the ingredients and says we're right to be concerned


Energy drinks

Energy drinks

Energy drinks

Boots have become the latest retailer to ban the sale of energy drinks to the under 16s, but they are still a popular choice. In 2012, an EU-wide survey estimated that 30pc of adults, 68pc of adolescents and 18pc of children consumed energy drinks. The most worrying thing, from a health point of view, is the amount of children consuming these drinks. With their high sugar and caffeine they're completely unsuitable for youngsters.

* Sugar content

It would be plausible to describe these drinks as liquid sugar. To help bring to light just how much sugar they contain, it's important to understand that a teaspoon of sugar is four grams of sugar. Most of us adults need to be consuming fewer than 12 teaspoons of sugar each day, with the aim of getting our intake below six teaspoons of sugar each day. Children and adolescents need to be consuming even less than this. Energy drinks provide approximately eight teaspoons of sugar in a typical serving. It would be difficult to eat eight teaspoons of sugar off a spoon, but far easier to drink eight teaspoons of sugar. Each brand being different, the amount of sugar they can contain ranges from three teaspoons to a whopping 14 teaspoons per serving. To check the sugar content, look at the nutritional label on the side of the can or bottle. The sugar content of energy drinks is comparable to other fizzy drinks.

However what makes them more problematic is that they are sold in higher volumes. Fizzy drinks are often sold as cans containing 330ml of fluid while energy drinks come in 250ml and 500ml cans.

Most Irish people will die from heart disease. The higher a person's intake of added sugar, the higher the risk of heart disease. Research published in 2014 found a strong association between sugar and dying from heart disease. The study followed people for 15 years. Those who got 17pc to 21pc of their calories from added sugar had a 38pc higher risk of dying from heart disease compared with those who consumed 8pc of their calories as added sugar. For some people, giving up energy drinks could be a massive step in a healthier direction.

Caffeine content

Most parents and healthcare professionals would be of the opinion that caffeine is for grown-ups as caffeine is a psychoactive substance. As with other stimulants it can be, and has been, lethal in large doses. Despite this frightening detail, according to a study by the American Academy of Paediatrics, 73pc of children consume caffeine on a given day. The average serving of an energy drink contains 90mg of caffeine.

However, the range of caffeine between brands is quite large, ranging from 38mg to 160mg. For comparison, an average cup of tea contains 50mg of caffeine and a cup of filtered coffee contains 90mg.

There are many reasons why caffeine shouldn't be consumed by children and adolescents. Scientists cannot study the consequences and negative outcomes caffeine has on children in a research setting as it wouldn't be ethical. Therefore there are a significant number of unknowns. It is presumed that the impact it has on them is greater than adults.

A basic reason for this is size. As children weigh less than adults an energy drink would provide their body with more mg of caffeine per kg.

Therefore the increases in heart rate and blood pressure are likely to be greater as well as other reactions to excess, such as gut issues and feelings of anxiety. Energy drinks are freely available for children to buy in most supermarkets and shops and are relatively inexpensive.

It is therefore imperative that restrictions on age are put on the purchase of all caffeinated drinks.

When are energy drinks being consumed?

Energy drinks are frequently consumed during exercise and when people are consuming alcohol. A surprising 52pc of adults and 41pc of adolescents revealed they usually consume energy drinks when taking part in sport. The use of energy drinks with exercise is counterproductive. Most short bouts of exercise, especially less than 60 minutes, do not require refuelling. Considering two in every three people are overweight in Ireland, taking in calories while burning calories will minimise the impact extra activity has on waistlines.

Although energy drinks make headlines due to their sugar and caffeine content, it must also be noted that recent research from UCC has found that approximately 43pc of students surveyed reported using energy drinks as a mixer with alcohol. This is a dangerous cocktail. Energy drinks can mask the effects of alcohol which can lead to people drinking more than they would have otherwise. The physical and psychological impacts of the two combined are greater than those of individual consumption, leading to heart palpitations, issues with mood and poor sleep. Some may even experience anxiety or panic attacks.

Despite the growing trend in the use of energy drinks, it's challenging to think of any time when they are warranted or of use to the majority of people.

• For more information check out safefood.eu for a detailed list of energy drinks and the amount of sugar they contain.

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