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Out with a bang

Nechama Brodie

Are energy drinks creating a generation of binge drinkers and troubled teens? Nechama Brodie investigates.

This month the French government lifted a 12-year ban on the sale of original-formula Red Bull—not because the country’s food agency finally considers the energy drink safe, but because European Union regulations state that a product made or sold in other EU countries cannot be banned unless it’s proved to be a health risk.

Until recently, France’s prohibition on taurine-containing drinks (a taurine-free version was created for the French market) was upheld by the European Court because studies indicated further research was needed. Taurine-containing drinks are also banned in Denmark, Iceland and Norway.

Taurine is an organic acid, originally extracted from ox bile (synthetic taurine has been produced since the 1930s and is used in energy drinks and pet food). After caffeine, it’s one of the most popular energy drink additives. Human babies get natural taurine from their mothers through breast milk and the substance is added to cow’s milk-based infant formulas to make the solution more like human milk. Taurine is found naturally in food from animal sources. But scientists are still unsure exactly what role taurine performs, both in infant development and as an adult supplement.

While taurine has received the lion’s share of press coverage—fuelled, in part, by wild urban legends claiming that the compound is extracted from bulls’ testicles or bull semen (it’s not)—in reality it’s just one of several controversial additives powering a growing global energy and smart-drink sector.

In the past five years United States sales of energy drinks have grown by 56%—the US retail market was valued at $5,4-billion in 2006 and is estimated to reach $9,3-billion by 2011. In the same period sales of regular soft drinks dropped, prompting major manufacturers such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi to develop “hybrid” soda/energy drinks in an effort to gain a share of the market.

Relatively little is known about the effects of long-term energy-drink consumption; caffeine is considered safe (within prescribed limits), but there’s little to no conclusive proof about the health benefits of many of the common chemical and herbal additives—and no significant research about potential health hazards. Even less is understood about how these ingredients might interact with one another, particularly when consumed in such concentrated doses.

While scientists continue to study the brains of unfortunate laboratory rats and mice, in an effort to unlock the puzzle of energy drinks’ active ingredients, the real guinea pigs might prove to be the present generation of teenagers and young adults.

Despite warnings on many energy-drink cans, indicating the product is not recommended for children, pregnant women or people with caffeine sensitivity, aggressive (and, admittedly, clever) marketing campaigns have seen energy drink manufacturers deliberately and successfully target the youth market. US surveys indicate more than 30% of 12- to 24-year-olds consume energy drinks on a regular basis; in the United Kingdom about 40% of teens aged 16 to 19 consume energy drinks.

Just weeks before the French government allowed the sale of Red Bull, a high school in England went public with its decision to ban the drink, with another supermarket-brand energy formula, from its grounds after staff reported an increase in bad behaviour among learners.

Similar bans have been enforced in several high schools in the US after a number of learners became ill after drinking energy drinks with ominous names such as “Spike Shooter” and “Redline”. In March this year the Journal of American College Health published a study linking high energy drink consumption in young adults to risky behaviour, including unprotected sex, substance abuse and violence.

Recent studies published in medical journal the Lancet also reported links between seizures and excess consumption of energy drinks; in one case an 18-year-old woman collapsed in a nightclub after mixing a popular energy drink with aspirin.

While energy drinks on their own pose an unknown health risk, one of the biggest areas of concern is mixing energy drinks with alcohol—a practice popular since the late Nineties and one that is tacitly encouraged by energy drink manufacturers. A local energy drink producer even carries recipes for “shocktails” on its website, including one called a “blackout” which features two shots of Stroh Rum (with an alcohol content of 80%) and promises “lights out, say no more!!!”

It’s a profitable trend marketers have sought to exploit, recently releasing a number of premixed alcoholic energy drinks with “teen friendly names” and eye-catching packaging (some of which are confusingly similar to non-alcoholic energy drinks) and which might contain up to 10% alcohol, more than double the amount of most regular beers.

“Premixed drinks take the taste out of alcohol,” says psychologist Allan Sweidan, programme director of Johannesburg’s Crescent Clinic, “which makes it a lot easier to get drunk. You don’t even have to say alcohol’s name when you order the drink—there’s no relationship to the can or bottle being alcoholic.”

When it comes to mixing a stimulant (like caffeine) with alcohol, Allan says it’s “not about being alert, it’s about energy. People don’t want to be the slurring drunk. They want to enjoy the positive aspects of alcohol—being more sociable and less inhibited. They don’t want to fall asleep on the couch with a cigarette in their mouth.” 

Disturbingly, some newspaper reports have quoted students saying they drank energy drinks because it enabled them to drink for longer “without falling over”, suggesting a direct link between energy drinks and the UK’s growing binge-drinking culture.

Perhaps the biggest problem emerges when drinkers confuse caffeine-induced energy with sobriety. A recent Italian study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research showed drinkers who mixed caffeine and alcohol felt less intoxicated than they actually were. Although caffeine won’t keep you from getting drunk, its stimulant properties might create a false sense of security in the user—because you feel more alert, you’re more likely to trust your (flawed) judgement than you would if you were just plain drunk.

“Does coffee sober you up? No,” says Allan. “It might keep you awake enough so you don’t fall asleep at the wheel when you drive home—but it won’t stop you from having an accident.”

The chemistry of energy
Caffeine: A plant alkaloid that acts as a central nervous system stimulant in humans. Found naturally in coffee, tea, cocoa, yerba mate and guarana.

Guarana: A South American plant, the seeds of which contain up to five times the amount of caffeine (also known as guaranine) as coffee beans.

Taurine: An organic acid (sometimes referred to as an amino acid) that may play a role in neurological development, and is an ingredient of bile. Taurine is found naturally in foods from animal sources. Human breast milk is rich in taurine as infants (unlike adults) cannot manufacture the compound themselves; because of this, taurine is usually added to infant formulas (cow’s milk has a relatively low taurine content). Natural taurine is manufactured from ox bile; synthetic taurine—commonly used in energy drinks and pet food—has been available since the 1930s. Taurine does not give an energy boost. Studies show it may play a role in improving muscle function, but remarkably little is known about the potential benefits—or side effects—of taurine in energy drinks, or as a supplement.

Glucuronolactone: A naturally occurring chemical produced by the metabolism of glucose in the human liver. Believed (but not proven) to help fight fatigue, it’s commonly used as a supplement by body builders.

Ginkgo biloba: A Chinese herbal extract (from the leaf, and also the seed of the tree) used to treat a variety of ailments including asthma and fatigue, and believed to improve memory function.

Ginseng: A traditional herb used in Asian medicine that increases physical and mental stamina, and may help boost the immune system and relieve stress. Should not be combined with caffeine.

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