Think before you drink

By Savvy Soumya Misra

Studies confirm energy drinks like Red Bull can be unsafe. India yet to limit their caffeine content

In January 2011, about 300 people in the US had suffered health problems from excessive consumption of energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster; most of them were children and teenagers, as per the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The association has recently started tracking the toxicity of energy drinks that constitute the fastest growing market in the US. Canada, Australia and several European and Latin American countries have also acted against the caffeinated drinks following reports of deaths and seizures.

India’s energy drinks market is worth Rs 200 crore and is growing unregulated. Red Bull leads, followed by Coca Cola’s Burn and Goldwin Healthcare’s Cloud 9. In June 2010, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India prepared draft standards for energy drinks and invited public suggestions.

But its efforts have not moved beyond the invites. As of now, energy drinks are labelled as proprietary food that has no prescribed standards. Unlike carbonated drinks in which caffeine is capped at 145 mg/litre, a can of energy drink has 320 mg/litre caffeine or more. “Caffeine acts as a stimulant,” says Anoop Misra, chairperson of the National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation. “But excess of it may induce agitation, anxiety, irritability, insomnia and cause irregular heart function.” Several recent studies corroborate Misra’s concern.

Until we know more about the effects of energy drinks, children and teenagers should be discouraged from drinking them on a routine basis, says Steven Lipshultz of the Miller School of Medicine in USA. Such beverages also contain Vitamin B and stimulants like taurine, glucuronalactone and guarana to create the energy blend. There is not enough study to show the impacts of caffeine on them, he said, calling for more research.

Companies have purposely placed energy drinks in proximity to sports drinks to confuse the consumer, says John Higgins, professor of medicine at Texas University. “This ploy needs to be stopped as we have young children buying them.” Sports drinks like Powerade and Gatorade are meant to replace the electrolyte and carbohydrates lost during exercise. But energy drinks increase the carbohydrate level in the blood beyond the recommended limit and affect renal function, he adds.