Health halos and binge drinking: Irish agency concerned over booming energy drink sector
There are now 39 energy drink products available in Ireland such as Red Bull, Monster and Coca-Cola's Relentless - up from 10 products in 2002.
A report from the Irish public health body responsible for raising awareness on food safety and health issues found overall in the UK there was an eightfold increase in the number of energy drinks available in 2015 compared to 2002.
Good news for the sector perhaps, but for Safefood this was cause for concern due to high caffeine and sugar contents and use in combination with alcohol.
The agency called for a public health campaign to raise awareness of calorie and caffeine content and the risks of mixing alcohol or other mood-altering substances with energy drinks.
It also recommended a study of related accidents and injuries be conducted to identify the “burden of attendances” associated with energy drink and alcohol consumption.
“Further research needs to be conducted into the effects of marketing of energy drinks and the ‘partying’ and binge-drinking subculture and any associations with energy drink consumption in Ireland.”
A uniform tracking system for this in health services was needed, the report said, since current cases of ‘intoxication’ may be slipping under the radar.
“Anecdotal feedback from A&E [accident and emergency] departments in Ireland report that there is an issue with energy drink overconsumption, particularly in conjunction with alcohol intake and risk-seeking behaviour. However, due to a lack of recorded evidence, this is not verifiable.”
According to the charity Alcohol Action Ireland, Ireland has the fourth highest level of alcohol consumption of the 34 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.
A 2014 national survey showed over half of 18-75 year old drinkers were classified as harmful drinkers, which equates to 1.35 million harmful drinkers in Ireland.
One in five drinkers engage in binge drinking at least once a week and 75% of all alcohol consumed in Ireland in 2013 was done so as part of a binge drinking session.
A safety assessment of caffeine from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) last year did not consider energy drink consumption combined with high alcohol levels - something which was criticised at the time by the likes of Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), which said this ignored real-life consumption habits.
Yet secretary general for the trade group Energy Drinks Europe (EDE), Andreas Kadi, told us: "The answer to alcohol abuse is to consume less alcohol. It makes no sense to target non-alcoholic beverages in an effort to tackle problem drinking."
He said the Safefood's report ignored EFSA’s opinion on caffeine safety, which concluded up to 400 mg of caffeine a day and 200 mg in a single two-hour session did not pose a health risk for general adult population.
The Safefood report said current marketing of energy drinks created a health halo over the products, which in reality contained sometimes six cubes of sugar in a 250 ml serving.
“Marketing of energy drinks is targeted at active young people and relies heavily on new media and event sponsorship. It portrays an image rather than focusing on the nutritional contents of the product.”
Energy drink advertising accounted for 20% of total soft drink advertising in Ireland in 2014.
Safefood counselled for voluntary on-pack warnings that the drinks were not suitable for rehydration or for use in combination with alcohol. This would be in addition to already mandatory warnings under the EU Food Information for Consumers (FIC) labelling regulation.
It also urged retailers to develop a voluntary code to avoid sales to children.
EDE says it already has a Code of Practice for its members, which includes Red Bull, that goes beyond legal requirements. The code states labels should include an advisory statement for 'moderate' consumption.
It also states marketing should not target children under the age of 12 and holds that: "EDE members do not sell any beverages which are a mixture of energy drinks with alcohol. We consider the denomination of such premixed alcoholic beverages as ‘energy drinks’ as misleading."
The report found intakes ranged from 8-30% in adults and 1.6-68% in teenagers, with consumers predominantly young and male.
The individual energy drink brands mentioned in the report did not respond to our request for comment in time for the publication of this article.