The haunting spectre of energy drinks

‘Science-ish’ looks for evidence to back up our worries about the sugary, super-caffeinated beverages

Last month, federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq unveiled reforms to the way the government regulates energy drinks, including a change in the classification of these caffeine-filled beverages from “natural health products” to “foods.” This means the feds can better control the ingredients the drinks contain and mandate that they carry labels listing their contents and related health warnings. Health Canada will also cap the concentration of caffeine per 250 ml at 100mg, require labels that indicate total caffeine content, and force manufacturers to include a warning that the drink shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol.

But just exactly how bad are energy drinks for the body?

The most recent systematic review, published in February, on energy drinks and their health effects in children, adolescents and young adults raised concern that the ingredients in many of these drinks, combined with reports of toxicity, may put some children at risk for adverse health events. But be careful not to glean too much from this review, warns the UK’s National Health Service: “Much of the available information on energy drinks is from physiological and experimental studies, and individual reports of people who drank energy drinks and experienced an adverse event. It is difficult, based on this type of report, to gauge exactly how common these adverse effects are.”

Science-ish could not find any trustworthy evidence on how many energy drinks a healthy person would need to consume to reach any level of toxicity, though it seems common sense would prevail here: if you’re pregnant or sensitive to caffeine for some other reason, stay away. And if you want to watch the waistline, proceed with caution. As this 2003 Journal of the American Pharmacists Association study concluded, “The amounts of guarana, taurine, and ginseng found in popular energy drinks are far below the amounts expected to deliver either therapeutic benefits or adverse events. However, caffeine and sugar are present in amounts known to cause a variety of adverse health effects.”

Indeed, the most damning results were found in studies on the relationship between high-sugar beverages (like energy drinks) and obesity. This American meta-analysis on the subject found “a clear and consistent association” between drinking pop and increased energy intake. Not surprising, of course. “Given the multiple sources of energy in a typical diet, it is noteworthy that a single source of energy can have such a substantial impact on total energy intake,” the study read. “This finding alone suggests that it would be prudent to recommend population decreases in soft drink consumption.”

A 2010 Harvard study on sugary beverages and the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes found that epidemiological reports “clearly indicate that regular consumption of (sugar-sweetened beverages) can lead to weight gain and substantially increase risk of developing chronic diseases including (metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and coronary heart disease).” It also concluded that evidence is emerging for adverse effects on other metabolic conditions, including hypertension, inflammation, gout, gallstone, and kidney disease.

Besides the obesity link, other health effects related to consuming energy drinks were not so clear. So if sugar and caffeine are the real concerns with energy drinks, let’s compare their make-up to other buzz-inducing foodstuffs. The Red Bull website correctly states, “One can of Red Bull® Energy Drink contains approximately the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee.”

But what about those massive cups of coffee North Americans like to guzzle in the morning? According to this handy website on caffeine content, a 250ml can of Red Bull contains 80mg of caffeine or 32mg/100ml. A 473ml Starbucks Grande-sized coffee has 330mg of caffeine, which works out to 69.7mg/100ml—or more than the caffeine concentration in most all the energy drinks listed on EnergyFiend.com.

As for nutrition, this website run by Yale ranks the nutritional content of sugary drinks. The worse offender? Welch’s Essentials fruit drinks—ahead of any energy drink or cola. (Rockstar is the energy drink to appear highest on the list, at number 7, while Red Bull tied with RC Cola at the 27th spot.)

So maybe the real question is: why aren’t governments working to abolish grape juice from kids’ lunchboxes or keep people away from coffee shops, where jacked-up, whip-cream topped coffees reign?

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, The Medical Post, and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at The Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at julia.belluz@medicalpost.rogers.com or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto

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