Flying Without Wings?

It’s hard to resist a caffeine buzz to pull you through the daylong consequence of the night before; who wouldn’t want ‘wings when you need them’? A promise of extra energy, concentration and heightened performance make energy drinks the perfect quick fix. But what are the risks of pumping yourself with drinks made from Britain’s most socially acceptable drug?


It appears the energy drink market has managed to exhibit its presence pretty much everywhere. When you can take your pick from half the isle they occupy in Tesco, and even my Nan isn’t a stranger to shotting what she calls ‘jäger-bombers’, it’s obvious how easily available energy-boosting products are. In 2006, the UK alone consumed 345 million litres of energy drinks. By 2012, this had risen to 630 million litres, proving the market for energy enhancing products is definitely on the up. Commercialised as a worldwide energiser, Red Bull dominates as leader of the energy drink market with 43% of the market sales. Their cans boast the ability to ‘Vitalise the Body and Mind’, luring consumers into purchasing their can of advantageous ingredients for a promising health benefit. So what’s actually in a can of Red Bull? Well, it’s a cocktail of caffeine, taurine, B-group vitamins, sucrose and glucose and alpine spring water. All sounds relatively harmless, and it’s clear the world are obsessed with the buzz, so what are the consequences?

High sugar, high caffeine energy drinks have gained a lot of bad press over the years. With the modern energy drink market being less than 20 years old, their long-term effects are not yet conclusive. Introduced to consumers with a larger dose of marketing than actual caffeine, the incredible growth of these products is unsurprising. However as an accumulation of death scares supposedly caused by energy drinks has gradually come to light, it’s becoming apparent that the honeymoon period could be coming to a close. Their main buzz-inducing ingredient, caffeine, is a stimulant that raises heart rate and blood pressure. It has been linked to cardiac arrest, seizures, insomnia and anxiety. Sure, this level of sincerity is usually the consequence of excess consumption, causing the ‘it wont happen to me’ mind-set. But the truth is, caffeine is a drug that pushes your body into an artificial high, followed by a crash, provoking a roller-coaster of highs and lows throughout the day as your body craves more. This, in many people, leads to addiction. Consequentially, excess consumption is the outcome of addiction, causing the severe health risks stated above. Caffeine is also a diuretic, so when energy drinks are used to create a jolt before sport, you could get seriously dehydrated.


But what’s the difference between energy drinks and coffee? They can actually contain a similar amount of caffeine, and a cup of coffee a day is often linked to health benefits. The major difference, though, is their advertising. With names like ‘Monster’ and ‘Rockstar’ most energy drinks are made to appeal to people with a taste for danger. Many of their advertising campaigns are packed with high risk, high adrenaline sport directly targeting impressionable young men, and often children. They come in supersize cans made only for the brave, as well as the same contents being crammed into a hard-core, super-quick 60ml shot. Red Bull’s website suggests you drink their drinks ‘On the road, during lectures and study sessions, at work, while doing sports, playing video games or going out day or night. So for teenage boys, it appears they should be drank pretty much constantly, making clear that they are Red Bull’s main target audience. These are the people, slightly stereotypically, that are most likely to go over the top and glug their products like water, can after can. Compare this to the sophisticated coffee market, where supposedly middle-class, middle-aged women slowly sip the beverage over a catch up with an old friend. It’s clear that the quantity, purpose and speed at which caffeine is consumed are very different in the media portrayal. But we all know that the media and real life are two very different things. In reality, students are known for drinking cup after cup of coffee in a row if that gets you through a night of revision, and at the same time many ‘normal’ middle aged people are opting for energy drinks for a quicker fix than coffee in the mornings.

But caffeine isn’t the only ingredient in these drinks that boasts energy-creating properties. Taurine; an amino acid already found in our body and naturally in foods like meat, and B-vitamins, which are essential for the conversion of food energy, will both supposedly add to the rush. However there is little evidence to support this. Adding more B-vitamins wont give you more energy when the body is already producing enough itself, and as with many of the other ingredients involved, taurine has little evidence of being much more than a fancy extra to fluff up the drink’s perceived nutritional value. Again, portrayal through advertising is not necessarily the reality. There is also a great lack of knowledge of the combined outcome of the other ingredients involved, both positive and negative. Apart from caffeine, energy drinks are packed with sugar, adding to the buzz. One 16-ounce can could contain 54 grams of sugar, the approximate equivalent of 14 teaspoons. Used inappropriately in large enough quantities, you can see how they can become pretty much obesity in a can.

sugar in red bull

Further problems arise when mixing energy drinks with alcohol. Combining a stimulant and a depressant such as alcohol, both in one shot is going to cause obvious confusion for your body. Studies show that the addition of an energy drink to alcohol makes people feel less impaired than from alcohol consumption alone, leading to riskier behaviour such as drink driving. But when you can pick up a jäger bomb for 90p on a student night, it’s clear that the people that actually worry about these effects are few and far between.

It seems that the problem here is more in the media portrayal and the extremists than actual ingredients; people are encouraged to associate taking risks with energy drinks. With limited information into their long-term effects, combined with the constant scares that almost everything is bad for our health, at some point people just stop listening. It has to be noted that the death scares surrounding energy drinks so far have come about in conjunction with other underlying health issues that the individual may have had, not directly from the drink alone. The Food and Drug Administration has so far been unable to make a causal link between any of the energy drinks sold in Britain and the deaths in question, and if in the future they do, that drink will be ruled unsafe and withdrawn from the supermarket shelves. Until then, mixing energy drinks with alcohol is something we should be aware of, as well as guzzling them in large quantities too frequently. Using them as a substitution to sleep or food is also likely to cause you problems, but as the evidence currently stands, the answers appears to be everything in moderation.

Charlotte Lindsay 


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