Comment: The unexplored dangers of high energy drinks

By Rob Wilson

Too often in a media age driven by headlines and sensational stories, balanced evidence-based approaches to issues like the danger of high energy drinks fall by the wayside. I believe this has sometimes happened with news stories relating to tragedies allegedly linked to energy drinks. Explore

The sad case of Shaun Biggs, a local Reading man, aged 21 who died of heart failure on New Year's Day 2010 after consuming vodka and Red Bull, is one such case.

Last week, I secured an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on the health effects of high energy caffeinated drinks – you will know familiar brands as Red Bull, Monster and Relentless, for example. I believe this debate is important because I am not convinced that we as consumers really know enough about them and their effects on the human body.

The minister referred to the "many anecdotal reports of young people having heart attacks after drinking too many energy drinks". She is right to say that the reports are predominantly anecdotal.

However we can end the anecdotal nature of incidents like this through a programme of rigorous examination and I believe that this can settle the debate, by joining the dots of sporadic foreign study.

I am pleased that health minister Anne Milton agreed with me on this point during the debate. She made the pertinent point that "building up a good evidence base can be quite difficult". I agree with her and appreciate the work involved but that does not mean we should not try. If indeed we do discover an inherent danger in the drinks and the efforts of government-sponsored research can prevent a single fatal episode, the effort will have been well worth it.

The extent of the potential harm these drinks might cause only became clear to me when my constituent Rebecca Rye brought the issue to my attention. To cut a long story short, Mrs Rye managed to intercept a high energy caffeine drink from her 12-year-old son Edward before he managed to consume it.

She suspects that without her knowledge he may have been purchasing drinks for some time on his journey to and from school. Mrs Rye, who is aware of a number of cases where the drinks appear to be linked to damaging health effects, behavioural problems, and even instances of death, was naturally concerned.

At the time I believed she was probably right to be concerned and I undertook to look into the matter. I now believe she has legitimate concerns and my research took me to an alarming report from the University of Miami's Department of Paediatrics. The report, entitled Health Effects of Energy Drinks on Children, Adolescents and Young Adults, published in February last year, states: –

"These drinks have been reported in association with serious adverse effects, especially in children, adolescents, and young adults with seizures, diabetes, cardiac abnormalities, or mood and behavioural disorders or those who take certain medications."

It goes on to conclude: –

"Energy drinks have no therapeutic benefit, and many ingredients are understudied and not regulated. The known and unknown pharmacology of agents included in such drinks, combined with reports of toxicity, raises concern for potentially serious adverse effects in association with energy-drink use."

This is powerful stuff but what is clear is that the report's authors think there is a case for more in-depth study. This is precisely the proposal that I made to the health minister, Anne Milton, during my debate. I believe it is time for the UK to commission an authoritative and comprehensive study into the health impacts of high energy drinks, with a particular focus on children, adolescents and young adults.

This is not to be alarmist and as I said in my speech in the Commons it is not my instinct to reach for regulation or to ban things because I passionately believe in informed choice. However, the issue here is that we simply do not know whether the products are dangerous and whether there is a case for regulation or even a ban. However, we do know that both the Food Standards Agency and the British Soft drinks Association don't want under-16s drinking it.

This is where an in-depth and authoritative study comes in.

Existing studies are sporadic and most research comes from abroad. Some European countries like Norway, France and Denmark did not authorise energy drinks for sale for many years and Sweden's leading supermarket chains have voluntarily banned their sale for children under the age of 15.

Much of the concern in these countries revolves around the synthetically produced amino acid taurine. There is a debate in the medical and toxicological community about the effects of taurine, particularly on the brain, but again not enough is known about this significant ingredient.

In the UK the drinks are purchasable at any age and are not subject to any state-initiated regulation. The Food Standards Agency advises that children and people who are sensitive to caffeine should "only consume in moderation" but other than that we are reliant on the soft drinks industry’s own voluntary Code of Practice.

The Code requires members of the British Soft Drink Association to publish information and advice on their cans stating that the product is unsuitable for under-16s and pregnant women. Similarly, the Association's policy is not to market the drinks at those under the age of 16. In my view, the Association does deserve credit for this pro-active self-regulation and I made that point in my speech.

But my concern is that regardless of the FSA and the industry's advice, any young person can buy the drinks without hindrance and they remain highly popular – so popular, in fact, that you even see their branding and logos on t-shirts and baseball caps.

Frankly, I can see no evidence of their popularity diminishing and as I said in the debate these drinks are marbled into British youth culture. Given that the drinks have been associated by some researchers with serious medical complications it is my view that we are basically playing a game of Russian roulette with the young and energy drinks, because without the state-commissioned study I am seeking we are operating in relative ignorance.

This is why I suggested during my speech that we consider a temporary ban on their sale to under-16s – at the very least – until we have acquired sufficient knowledge on the subject to devise a long-term approach.

Regrettably, after a serious debate, the minister did not agree to my proposal for a study.

For me, and others who share these concerns, this issue is by no means over. The profile of the issue has been raised and I will continue to seek an authoritative study whenever the opportunity arises.

Rob Wilson is a Conservative MP for Reading East.

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