A report published this month by safefood has come with warnings about energy drinks.
Much has changed since the food safety promotion board last looked into this issue.
In 2002, ten of these drinks were available on the Irish market and there are 39 today.
Our consumption has increased accordingly, with Mintel reporting that €130.4m was spent on energy and sports drinks in Ireland in 2015.
Safefood carried out a survey of 807 adults as part of their investigations.
It found that males aged between 18 and 24 were the biggest consumers of energy drinks and that the majority of these young men thought the drinks were of benefit to their bodies.
More than four in 10 believed the drinks helped them to stay awake for longer, 27% felt they gave them an edge in sport and another 27% reported that they improved their attention span for work and study.
Dr Cliodhna Nolan-Foley of safefood wants to counter these assumptions.
“Consuming energy drinks can have negative consequences for health because of their high sugar and caffeine content,” she says.
“Our aim is to make people more aware of what it is that they are drinking.”
The figures highlighted by the safefood report are startling. A 500ml can of Monster Energy contains 55g (or 14 teaspoons) of sugar and 160ml of caffeine (about the same as two espressos).
Red Bull fares no better, with 27.5g (seven teaspoons) of sugar and 80mg of caffeine (one espresso) in its 250ml can.
Catherine Norton, the performance nutritionist with Munster Rugby, has strong opinions on this matter.
To begin, she wants to make it clear that there is a distinction between energy drinks and sports drinks.
“Energy drinks are carbonated drinks that are high in sugar and caffeine,” she says.
“Sports drinks don’t have caffeine content and they were created specifically for high-performance athletes who lose electrolytes, salts and water through their sweat and have to restore those levels quickly so that they can train multiple times a day, day after day.”
She never prescribes energy drinks to the sportspeople she works with.
“The caffeine isn’t beneficial and the carbonation can lead to gastrointestinal problems,” she says.
However, Norton does recommend sports drinks.
“Professional sportspeople are required to rehydrate quickly and these drinks are designed for that precise purpose,” she says.
This is not to say that she would urge people who follow a normal exercise routine to consume these drinks.
“Energy drinks are not suitable for anyone, not high-level athletes, weekend warriors or people who exercise moderately three or four times a week,” she says.
“And as for sports drinks, most people who eat a well-balanced diet will take in enough fluid through their food and drink to be properly hydrated.
"All they have to do is to drink a few more glasses of water after exercising.”
Dr Foley-Nolan is equally convinced about this.
“You would need to do an hour or more of moderate to intense exercise to warrant having one of these sports drinks,” she says.
“90% of us don’t need them.”
Alan Donnelly, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Limerick, is more concerned about energy drinks.
“I go swimming at the weekend and I see other swimmers consuming energy drinks after completing their laps of the pool,” he says.
“I know they’re not doing anything like enough exercise to warrant the intake of all that sugar.”
Far from being healthy, Norton believes these drinks can lead to weight gain rather than weight loss.
“Most of us exercise to manage our weight and our health,” she says.
“What we don’t realise is that the energy cost of consuming energy drinks can negate the energy lost by exercising.
"It cancels out the benefit, so if you’re exercising to lose weight, consuming energy drinks means you’re less likely to achieve your goals.”
This isn’t the only potential drawback to these drinks.
The sugar content can also lead to increased insulin sensitivity and a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
It can damage teeth too, gradually eroding tooth enamel and making teeth more likely to decay and develop cavities.
“If you’re somebody who does 40 minutes of Zumba on a Wednesday evening, in fact unless you’re somebody who’s running an ultra-marathon or competing in an extreme event, you just don’t need these energy drinks,” says Donnelly.
“You don’t need an energy boost. You don’t need to run the health risks associated with the high sugar and calorie content. And you don’t need the caffeine either.
"People aren’t aware that if they drink one of these energy drinks in the evening, it’s like drinking one or two cups of coffee. It will have an impact on your sleep.”
Experts believe the hydration message has been overstated.
“The general public doesn’t need urgent rehydration unless they are active in the extreme heat or unless they are taking extreme exercise,” says Donnelly.
“We shouldn’t worry so much about it. You will drink when you’re thirsty and your body will rehydrate itself over a number of hours.”
It is as risky to drink too much during exercise as it is to consume too little.
Scientists are now so worried that people are consuming too many fluids prior to and during exercise that they published new recommendations in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine last summer, urging people to rely on thirst as an accurate indicator for how much they need to drink.
“I’ve seen it,” says Donnelly.
“I’ve seen people running 10k and consuming five rehydration drinks.
"It’s too much.”
For anyone who is worried about their hydration levels, Norton suggests they check their urine first thing in the morning.
“If it’s dark and strong smelling or if there’s not that much of it, that’s a good indication that you’re dehydrated,” she says.
“However do bear in mind that your urine may be darker if you’re taking multivitamins.”
The simple solution to dehydration is to increase your water intake.
“The clue is in the word hydration,” says Dr Foley-Nolan.
“Water is all you need.”
Donnelly also recommends water over other alternatives.
“It’s what our body needs in that it’s a natural substance with no added sugars or calories,” he says.
“But if you must have a sports or energy drink, make sure to read the label. Look at the calories and sugars and make an informed decision.”
Norton’s last words of advice concern children.
“I’ve helped schools devise healthy eating policies and I’ve noticed that many of them ban energy drinks and allow sports drinks,” she says.
“These sports drinks may not contain caffeine but they still contain sugar, which can cause tooth decay and contribute to rising obesity levels.
"They were designed for adult sportspeople who have high hydration and energy needs. They have no place in [children’s] lunchboxes.”
People are slowly beginning to realise that these drinks may not be as healthy as they seem.
In 2014, Australian scientists wrote a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics expressing concern that there was no strong scientific evidence to show these sports and energy drinks were beneficial to health and that same year, a promotional campaign by Lucozade Sport was banned by the Advertising Standards Agency in Britain for stating that it hydrated ‘better than water’.
Safefood wants its message to be heard above the din of the advertising slogans.
“What we do is provide evidence-based, scientific information and advice,” says Dr Foley-Nolan.
“The evidence is now strong enough to prove that regular consumption of these sugar-sweetened drinks cause diabetes and obesity. People need to know this.”
We’ve looked at some of the top-selling energy and sports drinks in Ireland to see just how much sugar and caffeine.
the 250ml can contains 27.5grams of sugar and 80mg of caffeine. That’s the recommended sugar intake for the entire day in one drink.
a 500ml bottle of this sports drink contains 17.5grams of sugar. However, it also contains calcium, magnesium and potassium to help with faster rehydration.
this 500ml bottle is laden with 66grams of sugar. That’s more than twice the recommended daily intake. It also contains 90mg of caffeine.
each 500ml serving of Gatorade contains 20g of sugar. On the plus side, it has no caffeine and it does boast electrolytes to aid with rehydration.
this drink packs a punch with a 500ml can delivering 55g of sugar and 160mg of caffeine. That’s the equivalent of two espressos with 14 teaspoons of sugar.