A new review study of the existing evidence suggests that energy drinks may represent a looming public health threat, especially for children and young adults. The investigators reviewed scientific literature that examined adverse effects of energy consumption. The study was published on October 14 in the journal Frontiers in Public Health by researchers affiliated with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Copenhagen, Denmark and Talinn, Estonia.
The study authors note that in 2006, almost 500 new brands of energy drinks were released worldwide. The energy drink industry is booming, with sales of energy drinks estimated to be more than 12.5 billion US dollars in 2012, marking an increase of 60% from 2008 to 2012. Energy drinks are relatively new to the overall soft drinks market; the first energy drink launched in Japan in 1960. Energy drinks first appeared in Europe in 1987 before rapidly expanding throughout the rest of Europe. The first appeared in the US in 1997.
The scientific literature does not contain a standard definition of an “energy drink,” it is commonly understood to be a non-alcoholic drink that contains caffeine (usually its main ingredient), taurine, vitamins, and sometimes a combination of other ingredients (such as guarana and ginseng). The beverages are marketed for their perceived or actual benefits as a stimulant, for improving performance and for increasing energy. A caffeine overdose can cause palpitations, hypertension, central nervous system stimulation, nausea, vomiting, marked hypocalcemia, metabolic acidosis, convulsions, and, in rare cases, even death. In 2007, a man in Australia was reported to have suffered a cardiac arrest after consuming seven to eight cans of an energy drink while taking part in vigorous physical activity. A Swedish study in 2006 described a number of cases with severe symptoms and a number of deaths possibly linked to energy drinks. Four US cases involved individuals who presented at emergency rooms after suffering new, adult-onset seizures and the only common finding was that all the patients had consumed large amounts of energy drinks.
The researchers found that teens who consumed energy drinks were more likely to use tobacco and other harmful substances, to drink alcohol and to be at a greater risk for depression and physical injuries requiring medical treatment. They also found that approximately 70% of young adults who drink energy drinks mix them with alcohol. The consumption of high amounts of caffeine contained within energy drinks reduces drowsiness without diminishing the effects of alcohol resulting in a state of “wide awake drunkenness,” keeping the individual awake longer with the opportunity to continue drinking.
The researchers concluded that the health risks associated with energy drink consumption are primarily related to their caffeine content; however, more research is needed that evaluates the long-term effects of consuming common energy drink ingredients. They note that the evidence indicating adverse health effects due to the consumption of energy drinks with alcohol is growing. Moreover, the risks of heavy consumption of energy drinks among young people have largely gone unaddressed and are poised to become a significant public health problem in the future.