Monster problem: Companies producing sugary drinks have decreased the sugar content as a result of a sugar tax. But the same cannot be said about energy drinks. (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
Coca-Cola is celebrating the boom in the energy drinks market in South Africa and the rest of the continent, but health experts are worried Africans could be drinking themselves into diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
The beverages company, which has a partnership with the Monster energy drink brand and is its official distributor in Africa, says energy drinks are the fastest-growing products in its portfolio in the region.
But energy drinks are not ideal for prolonged consumption because they contain sugar, caffeine, sodium and other additives.
“Liquid sugar is particularly harmful and toxic to the system and very addictive and many of these people are drinking alcohol at the same time,” said Karen Hofman, the director of Priceless SA, a research-to-policy unit at the University of the Witwatersrand. “It is very much a precursor to diabetes and hypertension which is costing the country billions — both the medical care system, which can’t afford it, and their families.”
South Africa’s sugar tax, which has been in place since 2018, has seen mostly cold drink manufacturers decrease the sugar content of their products or introduce “zero sugar” variants that replace the item with artificial sweeteners. This has largely not been the case with energy drinks.
Under the sugar tax, manufacturers of sugary drinks are charged a levy on the sale of their products, making them costlier, in the hope of discouraging consumers from the products as part of the government’s health drive.
Last May, the first scientific evaluation of the tax was published in the journal Obesity Reviews. The authors said it was paying off, with South Africans buying 28% less sugary drinks, and thus reducing their sugar and calorie intake.
But Hofman said South Africa’s sugar tax has not been that much of a deterrent to the consumption of energy drinks because their target market is already used to them costing more than other fizzy drinks.
As previously reported by the Mail & Guardian, the tax is “duty at source”, meaning it is paid by the producer, and calculated according to sugar content rather than the item’s total volume.
According to a World Health Organisation report, More than a quarter of South Africans live with obesity, ranking the country among the top 20% of the most obese nations in the world.
Rates of obesity and diabetes are rising globally and more than 50 countries, including Botswana, Zambia and Morocco, have introduced a tax on sugary drinks.
The consumption of large amounts of energy drinks, or even fizzy drinks, is a precursor to lifestyle diseases, Hofman said, including the increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, poor sleep quality and stomach irritation.
Statistics South Africa published a report in 2021 on the top 10 leading causes of mortality and listed diabetes mellitus as the second leading cause of death in the country, after tuberculosis. Heart disease also made the list.
There were nearly 96 000 deaths attributable to diabetes in South Africa in 2021, according to the International Diabetes Federation.
A 500ml can of Monster contains 14 teaspoons of sugar, while a 473ml can of Red Bull has 13 teaspoons and the PepsiCo-owned Rockstar energy drink has 21 teaspoons of sugar in a 500ml container.
There are a multitude of reasons for energy drinks being the fastest growing consumer product, including that Africa has the youngest population in the world, the perfect target market for the product.
Another is that energy drinks are often consumed with alcohol, rather than for energy.
“The energy drinks market in Africa, as with many other FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] products, is benefiting from favourable demographic and economic trends on the continent. GDP is expected to grow at 3.7% over the next 10 years, the second-fastest rate in the world,” Coca-Cola Beverages Africa said in response to questions from the M&G.
The energy drinks market is huge and its turnover is equally as impressive. According to the international company Research and Markets, the market in South Africa registered an annual growth rate of 26.89% during the period 2013 to 2018, with a sales value of more than R10-million in 2018, an increase of 16.13% from 2017.
Coca-Cola Beverages Africa said: “Along with a growing population, increased urbanisation and a growing middle class, this can be expected to result in increased demand across the non-alcoholic ready to drink and food categories. In this context the growth prospects of energy drinks compare favourably with other non-alcoholic ready to drink categories.”
Africa has about 200 million people aged 15 to 24, making it the continent with the youngest population in the world, according to the United Nations. Asia and Europe are home to some of the world’s oldest populations, those aged 65 and above.
Market research company Mordor Intelligence has projected that the energy drinks market in Africa will witness a compound annual growth rate of 3.9%, from 2020 to 2025.
The market is fertile and recent years have seen new brands of energy drinks being launched, some by individuals. One of the most publicised in South Africa is DJ Sbu’s MoFaya, which was launched in 2015. The Coca Cola Company launched its own energy drink in the country in 2019, available in 300ml cans.
According to Mordor Intelligence, the rise of consumption in the African market is driven by the rising demand for convenience beverages and changing lifestyles, along with increasing income, sports activities and urbanisation.
But Hofman believes energy drink companies have created demand by using specific advertising in South Africa and the rest of Africa.
“They see South Africa as a growth market so they know how to create demand and they have done it for decades and this is effective marketing,” Hofman said.
“The amount of advertising is going through the roof to create this demand. It is a very large market particularly for males who are between the ages of 17 and 34.”
Data is not yet available on how much has been spent in recent years on advertising for energy drinks in South Africa. But one report, titled Companies Spent more than $1-billion In Ads for Sugary Drinks and Energy Drinks In 2018 by the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity published in Medical Xpress, said beverage companies spent $1.04-billion in advertising sugary and energy drinks in the United States.
Hofman said the growth of energy drinks in South Africa is directly linked to the growth in alcohol consumption, because energy drinks are often also used as mixers.
“The main drinks are Redbull and Monster. These energy drinks have a lot of sugar and a lot of caffeine and the thing about them is that they are consumed a lot with alcohol and they are used often as a mixer and there is a lot of drinking that goes on with that.”
According to the World Health Organisation data, South Africans are some of the heaviest drinkers globally, by extension making them big consumers of energy drinks consumed as mixers.
A 2017 paper, titled Energy Drink Consumption and Marketing in South Africa, said the only way to get people to drink less energy drinks was by regulating their advertising, alongside other measures such as transparent and clearer front-of-pack labelling.
Hofman said: “I think the government should protect the public from products that are unsafe. Are we going to allow multinationals that have colonised our country to make a profit at the expense of people’s health?
“That’s the bottom line, that’s what it amounts to, its colonisation. Its colonisation of people and the youth. It’s making sure that they are addicted from an early age.”
According to Coca-Cola Beverages Africa, because consumers have evolving preferences, the company is making many other drinks to offer variety such as iced tea and coffee, value-added dairy, juices, traditional local drinks, sparkling water as well as low- and no-sugar options.
Anathi Madubela is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian