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The ‘dangerous’ energy drinks that Britain’s teens are hooked on

What do these ingredients do to the body?

Aside from the risk of dependence, the possible adverse effects documented by The Dark Side of Energy Drinks study include anxiety, gastrointestinal disturbances, dehydration and tachycardia – the medical term for when heart rate still exceeds 100 beats per minute despite being at rest.

Some of this has been attributed to large doses of caffeine. Ingesting more than 500mg of caffeine has been associated with restlessness, insomnia, tremors and sometimes seizures, even in people without a history of epilepsy.

But the cocktails of chemicals within these drinks are also thought to overstimulate a crucial regulatory network within the body called the adrenergic system, which plays a key role in the functioning of both the heart and the central nervous system. It is this process which is thought to be behind some of the medical emergencies that have been linked to high consumption of energy drinks such as acute mania and stroke.

What are the risks for children?

Much of Fuse’s research has been prompted by concerns over the aggressive marketing and promotion of energy drinks to the teenage and young adult market through associations with industries such as music, gaming, as well as action and extreme sports.

“The prime age group is the young,” says Lake. “All these things which are cool are being linked to these caffeine-containing drinks, which sometimes also contain quite a lot of sugar.

Since 2016, Fuse has helped reveal that energy drinks are often cheaper than bottled water through multi-pack promotional deals and are typically marketed towards young adults through targeted sponsorships and sexualised imagery.

In January, the institute released a new study in the journal Public Health, highlighting that teenagers who consume more energy drinks are more likely to have disrupted sleep patterns as well as an increased risk of serious mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Their academic performance was also found to be affected.

Lake suspects that the sleep-induced disruption from consuming too much caffeine and stimulants is likely to be the source of the mental-health problems.

“If that’s happening in children, it’s also likely to be happening in young adults as well,” she says.

What can we do?

While there is considerable anecdotal evidence linking a high consumption of energy drinks to serious medical emergencies, it remains hard for academics to prove a causal link.

One of the reasons for this is because the NHS does not currently code for energy drink consumption when compiling data on patients who have been admitted to A&E.

“You get these occasional stories of medical issues [which have been linked to energy drinks] but academically, it’s really difficult to do reviews of this data in this country,” says Lake.

While a number of countries have attempted to regulate energy drinks, with Lithuania and Latvia even successfully banning sales to under-18s, the UK Government has yet to take such a step, although consultations have been run looking at ending the sale of energy drinks to children in England.

The authors of The Dark Side of Energy Drinks concluded that given the amount of caffeine in the average energy drink, people should drink no more than one can at a time and two cans per day to stay within an acceptable safety limit. They also argued that manufacturers should be obliged to clearly state the daily intake limit for products containing high levels of caffeine.

For now, Lake agrees there needs to be clearer messaging around the risks of energy drinks and to help children and young adults understand that they are different to ordinary soft drinks.

“Maybe they need to be on a different aisle,” she says. “There needs to be more obvious warning labels. The labels are there but they are teeny tiny and on the back, and quite hard to see. So there does need to be a bit more responsibility by the manufacturers as well.”

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