'Energy' drinks packed with caffeine, finds CSE's latest study. They could be a health hazard

  • Centre for Science and Environment’s Pollution Monitoring Lab carries out tests on leading ‘energy’ drink brands like Red Bull and Cloud 9. Finds high levels of caffeine in 44 per cent of the samples
  • Caffeine is a psycho-stimulant. Too much of it can lead to seizures, strokes and even death

  • These drinks are touted to have major health benefits, but could be doing irreparable harm instead, mainly to the young who are the key consumers

  • No regulatory controls. The PFA allows a limit of 145 parts per million (ppm) of caffeine in carbonated beverages, but ‘energy’ drink manufacturers want a 320 ppm cap. What’s worse, the country’s food regulatory body seems to be towing their line

  • CSE calls for strict regulatory controls over caffeine content. Wants clear indication and information on labels

New Delhi, July 18, 2011: 'Energy' drinks like Red Bull and Cloud 9 are anything but that – their makers and sellers claim that these help increase alertness of the mind and improve concentration, stamina and athletic performance, but in reality, the caffeine in them can cause severe health impacts.

And a latest study done by Centre for Science and Environment's (CSE) Pollution Monitoring Lab establishes that 'energy' drink brands sold freely in India – and consumed especially by the young -- do contain dangerously high levels of caffeine. Forty-four per cent of the samples tested by CSE breached the safe limit of 145 parts per million (ppm) of caffeine prescribed by the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954. A report on the study has appeared in the science and environment fortnightly, Down To Earth.

Studies across the world indicate that caffeine content in these drinks can lead to adverse effects like hypokalemia (low potassium levels), hallucinations, increased intracranial pressure, cerebral edema, stroke, paralysis, rhabdomyolysis (muscle fibers in blood), altered consciousness, rigidity, seizures, arrhythmias, and even death.

Currently, the caffeine content in these drinks is unregulated. Ignoring public health concerns, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the apex food safety regulatory body in the country, is mulling a norm of 320 ppm. Asks CSE’s deputy director general Chandra Bhushan: “The government has set 145 ppm as the safe limit for carbonated beverages – how can it now allow 320 ppm in 'energy' drinks?”

The CSE study

CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory tested 16 samples (two each of eight brands) of ‘energy’ drinks purchased randomly from markets across the country. The brands tested were Red Bull, Coca-Cola’s Burn, Cloud 9, Hector Beverages’ Tzinga, Monster Energy Ltd's Monster Ripper and three of JMJ group’s XXX energy drink brands -- Rejuve, Nicofix and Minus.

The caffeine content in these beverages was tested. The results:

  • 38 per cent of the samples breached the limit mentioned on the label.

  • 25 per cent did not mention the caffeine content on the label.

  • 44 per cent breached the caffeine limit of 145 ppm.

A majority of the 'energy' drinks in India are consumed with alcohol. They are believed to counter the effects of alcohol by warding off drowsiness. But, says Savy Soumya Mishra, assistant coordinator with CSE’s food safety programme, “Studies show that they actually impair cognitive functions and reduce the symptoms of alcohol intoxication, thereby increasing the probability of alcohol dependence.”

Says Chandra Bhushan: “What’s more worrying is that these so called ‘energy’ drinks are being confused with sports drinks – this is how they are marketed and projected. Gyms, bars and clubs across India have been dishing out these drinks to their clients, claiming major health benefits. But studies show that these drinks are not made to rehydrate and replenish the body. In fact, consumed during intense physical activity, they can lead to dehydration.”

Industry manages to delay and fudge
As per an amendment in Rule 37-A(2) of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, ‘energy’ drinks were to follow the caffeine cap of 145 ppm, as is applicable to carbonated beverages.

However, this was contested in the Madras High Court by Red Bull; the court put a stay order on the amendment. 'Energy' drink manufacturers like Red Bull want 320 ppm of caffeine to be allowed as the limit in these drinks -- more than double the limit allowed on carbonated beverages.

The FSSAI is now working on standards for these drinks, but while it plods along, the ‘energy’ drinks market is growing at a furious pace. Also, the Authority seems to be towing the industry line by having agreed on a 320-ppm level.

Says Chandra Bhushan: “What is the need for ‘energy’ drinks in our diet? They do not add to the health or energy levels in our bodies! And if they have to be allowed, they should be strictly regulated. The FSSAI needs to be careful about what standard for caffeine it finally decides on for these drinks.”

For more details, please contact Savy Saumya Misra of CSE’s food safety team (savvy@cseindia.org, 9818779535) or Papia Samajdar of the media team (papia@cseindia.org, 9811906977).