Once a popular part of the western diet, energy drinks could soon be banned to teenagers in England, under plans announced by Theresa May.
The scheme would bar shops from selling Red Bull and its caffeinated counterparts to under 16s and possibly also under 18s, in light of research which has linked excessive consumption of energy drinks to severe health problems in children.
Previous studies have claimed that UK adolescents are among the highest consumers of energy drinks in Europe, so the proposed ban is likely to affect a lot of youngsters.
But what is it about energy drinks that is so damaging for children and do they also pose health threats to adults?
What is an energy drink?
An energy drink is a type of beverage marketed in a way that suggests it will provide consumers with enhanced levels of mental alertness and physical stimulation.
Well-known brands of energy drinks include Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar.
What ingredients are in energy drinks?
Most variations include high levels of caffeine - usually roughly 80mg in a 250ml can.
The amount is usually more than double the amount found in other soft drinks while the average cup of coffee contains 40mg.
The ban would apply to drinks which contain 150mg of caffeine or more per litre.
Energy drinks also typically contain high levels of sugar - one of the main motivations for imposing a ban - and may contain other ingredients linked to boosting energy such as ginseng, guarana, carnitine and taurine.
Why is the government planning to impose a ban?
Theresa May has enlisted the ban in a bid to combat the rising levels of childhood obesity in the UK, which she describes as “one of the greatest health challenges this country faces”.
“That's why we are taking significant action to reduce the amounts of sugar consumed by young people and to help families make healthier choices,” she said.
"With thousands of young people regularly consuming energy drinks, often because they are sold at cheaper prices than soft drinks, we will consult on banning the sale of energy drinks to children.
"It is vital that we do all we can to make sure children have the best start in life and I encourage everyone to put forward their views."
What are the health risks for children?
According to leading Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, energy drinks offer “zero nutritional value” and there is no reason why children would need to consume them to get through the day.
Excess amounts of caffeine can lead to high blood pressure, nausea, vomiting and convulsions, she tells The Independent.
Other adverse health effects linked to excessive energy drink consumption, as illustrated in a study published in the International Journal of Health Sciences in 2015, include: anxiety, insomnia, gastronomical upset, headaches, hyperactivity and diuresis.
A study in Sweden also found links between energy drinks and dental erosion.
“High levels of sugar impact directly on obesity and tooth decay, both of which are known issues in children and adolescents,” explains paediatric dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson Clare Thornton-Wood.
"Meanwhile, high caffeine intakes in children and adolescents can also raise blood pressure and interfere with concentration at school,” she tells The Independent.
“Young people suffering with eating disorders often use low calorie energy drinks to boost energy levels with the caffeine they contain whilst limiting calories,” Thornton-Wood adds.
“These individuals are at greater risk of heart arrhythmias from the high doses of caffeine.”
What are the health risks for adults?
While adults are in a better position to make an informed choice, Thornton-Wood explains that their consumption of energy drinks also needs to be considered.
“The increased sugar, calories, caffeine and the potential pitfalls and health effects of these apply equally to adults,” she says.
The risks might even be exacerbated, considering that adults, unlike children, are more likely to consume energy drinks with alcohol (Red Bull is a popular mixer commonly used to dilute spirits such as vodka), which is a dangerous combination, Lambert explains.
“The consumption of high amounts of caffeine (as found in energy drinks) reduces drowsiness without diminishing the effects of alcohol,” she says.
“Therefore, there is the added risk that people will engage in dangerous behaviour as the mix of alcohol and caffeine can lead to a loss of inhibition.”
However, young people may also be at risk of such effects, as a study from 2011 found that 53 per cent of energy drinks consumed by adolescents were used as mixers with alcohol.
“This has been linked to increased risk taking behaviours such as illicit drug use,” says Thornton-Wood.
How could the ban be beneficial?
“Hopefully it will have an positive impact on obesity and tooth decay and increase concentration levels in schools,” says Thornton-Wood.
It may also prevent the development of habit forming behaviours at a young age that are not helpful for overall good health long term, she adds.
“It could also promote better diets in children overall, as these drinks can be replaced with other more nutritious alternatives.”
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