Draft amendments were recently published in the South African Government Gazette that propose stricter labelling requirements for "Highly Caffeinated Energy Drinks" (Solomon, 2011). We are all acquainted with drinks like Red Bull, Monster Energy, Rock Star, Spike, Power Play and Stripped Battery (!), to name but a few. Such drinks usually contain water, sugar or artificial sweeteners, flavourants, a variety of added vitamins, amino acids, herbal stimulants like guarana, and high doses of caffeine.
Massive doses of caffeine
As I mentioned in an earlier DietDoc article "Beware of energy drinks", if you drink three super-sized caffeinated energy drink a day, you could ingest more than 500mg of caffeine, or 1.5 times the amount of caffeine that is regarded as safe for adult consumption (i.e. 300mg caffeine per day). To date, most of the warning messages on these caffeinated energy drinks, are either printed in such small type that they escape notice, or the can is designed to make it difficult to read the label because of the use of dark background colours, and so on. Consumers may thus be totally unaware of how much caffeine and other potentially harmful additives they ingest when they down a caffeinated energy drink.
Legislation to prevent misleading advertising
It has long been evident, that something needs to be done about these drinks and that the public must be made aware of the risks associated with the injudicious use of highly caffeinated energy drinks.
The draft amendments suggested in the Government Gazette propose the following changes to the labelling of these drinks:
If a caffeinated energy drink contains more than 150mg/litre of caffeine, then their labels will have to display:
A message on the main panel of the label, stating “high caffeine content” in bold capital letters which must at least be 3mm in height
A warning also in capital letters 3mm in height: “Not recommended for children under 12 years of age, pregnant women, persons sensitive to caffeine and not to be consumed as a mixture with alcohol beverages”.
The caffeine content of the drink per 100ml and per serving size must also be displayed on the packaging label in milligrams.
To this I would add that the caffeine content of the entire can should also be displayed in prominent letters, because if, for example, a can of Monster Energy contains 473ml of liquid and 166mg of caffeine, then consumers need to know that while the caffeine content of this product is 35mg caffeine per 100ml, and a 150ml serving contains 53mg of caffeine, drinking the whole 473ml can, will flood their systems with 166mg of caffeine.
Displaying the caffeine content of a moderate serving size like 150ml, would still not give the consumer all the facts and let’s face it, most people will down the entire can of such energy drinks in one go.
Harm to children
The use of highly caffeinated energy drinks is particularly harmful to children. According to an article published in The Sunday Times in June of this year, researchers in the USA have issued warnings that children should avoid energy drinks which can put stress on their developing bodies.
After all, caffeine is a stimulant, and our over-stimulated youth do not need additional hyping up. The typical side-effects of caffeine are listed as rapid and irregular heart beats (tachycardia), restlessness, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, tremors, headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, stomach and duodenal ulcers, seizures in rare cases, and addiction. We really don’t need to expose our children to these risky caffeine side-effects and potential addiction.
The combination of highly caffeinated energy drinks with alcohol, can be potentially fatal due to dehydration and cardiac effect, and should be avoided at all costs. But how many people, especially teenagers, use alcohol and highly caffeinated energy drinks to zoop themselves up when they go dancing or raving all night. As a parent, if is important to be aware of what your children are drinking and to warn them firstly not to drink alcohol and secondly not to indulge in combinations of alcohol and highly caffeinated energy drinks.
Another harmful habit that many people indulge in, is to use highly caffeinated energy drinks to stay awake and supposedly alert. Students studying for exams, truck drivers who have to drive through the night, busy executives who need an energy boost, and even exhausted moms, may easily resort to downing a highly caffeinated energy drink to keep themselves awake in the mistaken belief that this will also pep them up and improve their performance.
The hyper-stimulated brain and nervous system of someone who has had a few highly caffeinated energy drinks do not necessarily perform more efficiently and when users reach that point beyond exhaustion when they would need to sleep, the caffeine will continue to prevent them from getting any rest. Such behaviour can therefore, result in a vicious cycle where the affected individual gets more and more exhausted and less and less effective.
If you have a lot of studying to do, or an unavoidable long drive or business trip, or are frazzled by the demands of your children and your job, sit down and plan your schedule so that you have sufficient time to do your tasks and get a decent amount of rest. If you are being stretched beyond your capabilities, get help because popping highly caffeinated energy drinks is not the answer.
Hopefully once the suggested caffeine labelling legislation is put in place, the public will become more aware of the dangers of misusing highly caffeinated energy drinks and realise just how much caffeine they are ingesting. Remember, despite the enticing wording on these cans, you are not stocking up on energy, but drowning in stimulants.
(Solomon N (2011). Warning labels proposed for highly caffeinated energy drinks. Food & Beverage Reporter, August 2011, pp 25-27; Sunday Times (2011). Energy drinks could harm growing children, researchers warn. The Sunday Times, 2 June 2011.)
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Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.