How The UK Got Hooked On Energy Drinks - And What It's Doing To Our Kids

Children in the UK drink more energy drinks than in any other country in Europe - and parents may be unaware of the health risks

Crack open a can, take a sip, and an irresistible mix of sweet and sharp hits the tongue. Ten minutes later and you’ll have a racing pulse, increased blood pressure, better concentration and feel more alert. You might even be a bit jittery or a bit breathless.

Give it a few hours, and as your blood sugar drops, you’ll be starting to pay for your earlier high. To beat that sluggish feeling you’ll need to sip, wait and repeat.

Two decades ago, a caffeine hit meant reaching for a cup of coffee or a pot of tea, but the UK is increasingly reaching instead for an energy drink. As a nation, we now drink 679 million litres of the stuff every year - almost three times as much as we did in 2006 - and energy drink sales are now worth more than £2 billion.

It’s not just the UK’s adult population that is hooked. Children in the UK drink more energy drinks than children in any other country in Europe, according to research from November 2017, with an earlier study showing that energy drinks were consumed by 68% of children aged 10-18, and 18% of those aged three and 10.

Getty / HuffPost UK

The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA), which represents energy brands, says that under 16s accounted for 6.5% of energy drinks bought.

The growth of the energy drink market in the UK, fuelled by brands including Red Bull, Monster and Relentless, as well as cheaper own label drinks, has been phenomenal. You’ll find them everywhere: in the fridges of garages, supermarkets and local shops, and featured alongside gaming and extreme sports giants in sponsorship deals that position them as aspirational, youthful and sporty.

Within four years, market research firm Mintel predicts, sales of energy drinks in the UK will rise by a further 60 million litres.

But while the UK might have fallen in love with energy drinks, there are worries about their long term health effects – especially when it comes to kids. Norman Lamb MP is the Liberal Democrat chair of the science and technology committee which has launched an inquiry into how they might be affecting our health. Energy drinks are “of great public concern”, he told HuffPost UK.

It is the cocktail of caffeine and sugar that Lamb believes needs further examination. “Obviously there’s the issue about the amount of sugar in fizzy drinks, and some brands, as I understand it, contain 20 teaspoons of sugar. But the other issue of great public concern in terms of health implications is caffeine content - particularly when consumed by children.

“In many cases, parents will not be aware that there are any health risks at all, and in many cases they’ll be unaware their children are consuming energy drinks.”

A single can of energy drink can exceed the recommended daily caffeine intake for a child – the teachers union NASUWT last year described energy drinks as “legal highs” for school kids and called for them to be banned from schools.

Supermarkets including Asda, Waitrose, Tesco and the Co-op have voluntarily banned the sale of the drinks to under 16s. But there are also calls for this to be made mandatory across all types of store.

“There’s an absolutely legitimate concern [about the drinks being sold to under 16s] and we have to establish what the evidence says, and whether we think the government should be going beyond the voluntary action of supermarkets,” said Lamb.

“The reality is often these drinks are purchased in corner shops outside school gates, so the ban in supermarkets has some effect but they may not be having that much impact in some localities.”

Lamb characterises the argument put forward by the soft drinks industry, that the drinks contain the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee and should therefore not be subject to any additional rules, as “nonsense”.

“That’s a nonsense argument because there isn’t any evidence I’ve seen of 14-year-olds frequenting Starbucks and drinking significant volumes of lattes.”

Energy drinks also often contain large amounts of sugar. Drinking them regularly in childhood could impact health in later life, argues Kawther Hashem, a nutritionist at the charity Action on Sugar. “Children and teenagers are being deceived into drinking large cans of energy drinks, thinking they are going to improve their performance at school, during sports, or even on a night out.

“In reality it is more likely increasing their risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay, which will have lifelong implications on their health,” she said.

The BSDA says the ingredients in energy drinks are safe and that the sector is committed to helping consumers make informed choices, including offering lower sugar variants.

The issue of tooth decay is not limited to children and teenagers. While your body might get a short term boost from an energy drink, your teeth risk being damaged long term.

When you drink a high-sugar energy drink, you are essentially bathing your teeth with sugars and acids, explains professor Damien Walmsley, scientific adviser at the British Dental Association. Energy drinks can contain up to 20 teaspoons of sugar - far more than a can of Coke – and acids that can “decay and erode the teeth.”

“Constantly sipping the drink means constantly bathing the mouth in sugar and there’s bacteria in the mouth that will change that sugar into acid,” he said. “If you do consume these drinks, consume them at meal times and don’t constantly sip on them.

“I could imagine sports people think they’re good for them… thinking it’s all about health, energy and performance. But for the teeth it’s not a positive experience.”

Dr Amelia Lake, a dietitian from Teesside University and associate director at Fuse public health research centre, first began researching energy drinks after she found children as young as 10 were experiencing behavioural problems at school.

Children find the drinks’ association with extreme sports and gaming aspirational, she argues, saying that the drinks are synonymous with gaming culture where young people - particularly boys and men - drink energy drinks to stay up late and then to keep awake the next day. “They’re aspiring to be like 18 year olds,” she said.

The physical effects of drinking too much caffeine, typically a high heart rate and insomnia, can be “extreme”, particularly where a person has an underlying heart condition. If you think about how having one too many coffees makes you feel as an adult, then you can imagine what happens if you concentrate that into a much smaller body, she says.

“Why, if we have a product that says it’s not suitable for children, are we letting children buy them?”

The BSDA points out that energy drinks carry a label warning that they are not suitable for people under 16, and that brands do not promote energy drinks to children. It says the main contributors to daily caffeine intake in all age groups were tea, coffee, chocolate and other drinks.