The fad and fallacy of Energy Drinks

Their names are as scary and boastful of the high level of physical and mental alertness they are supposed to provide, as their colourful packages portray. Name them: Red Bull, Shark, Rock Star, Monster and even Demon are some of the popular brands. Most of them contain large percentage of stimulants, especially caffeine and others such as guarana and ginseng.

While the amount of caffeine in an energy drink can range from 75 milligrams to over 200 milligrams per serving, that in a bottle of Coke is 34 milligrams while it is 55 milligrams in Mountain Dew. The target consumers of course, are the youths from the teenage years up till those in their early forties. But that is not all there is to their controversy-eliciting content.

In the absence of caffeine, guarana provides the energy. And when there are claims of no sugar, artificial sweeteners take charge. For those who are nutrition-conscious, the advertised vitamins or amino acids like taurine are better found by eating a variety of food and taking a daily vitamin/mineral supplement than from drinking energy drinks.

Health implications

I met a middle-aged Nigerian at Ikeja back in 2008 who recounted his ordeal from taking energy drinks while in Germany. He was responding to the article he had read on the hazardous health implications of energy drinks in Foodbusiness International as published by Strata Media.

He confessed to have felt restless, irritable and sleepless after consuming the drink. What saved him was a combination of large amounts of carrots and tomatoes prepared for him by his German hostess.

Though responses from individuals may vary because of what someone called “different body chemistry” the stimulating properties from caffeine and guarana can increase the heart rate and blood pressure (sometimes to the point of palpitations).The body is easily dehydrated, affecting the functions of the brain cells and similar to other stimulants, energy drinks prevent sleep. Yet, medical doctors have severally cautioned that an average young adult needs between 8-10 hours of quality sleep for him to perform optimally the following day.

Another warning from doctors is that energy drinks should be avoided while exercising as the combination of fluid loss from sweating and the diuretic quality of the caffeine can leave someone severely dehydrated.

According to Brown University (U.S.) Health Education instruction, energy drinks may not necessarily be bad for the average consumer when taken in moderation. But they shouldn’t be seen as “natural alternatives” either. Some of the claims they make like “improved performance and concentration” can be misleading. There, they are marketed as dietary supplements, and the national health authority does not approve or review the products before they are sold.

What happens when energy drinks are combined with alcohol?

This combination, according to the afore-mentioned publication warns that such a cocktail carries a number of potential dangers as reproduced:

Since energy drinks are stimulants and alcohol is a depressant, the combination of effects may be dangerous. The stimulant effects can mask how intoxicated you are and prevent you from realising how much alcohol you have consumed. Fatigue is one of the ways the body normally tells someone that they’ve had enough to drink.
The stimulant effect can give the person the impression they aren’t impaired. No matter how alert you feel, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is the same as it would be without the drink. People will misperceive their ability to perform complex tasks like driving or crossing a busy road. Once the stimulant effect wears off, the depressant effects of the alcohol will remain and could cause vomiting in your sleep or respiratory depression.
Research has found that people drink more and have higher BACs when they combine alcohol and caffeine.
Both (energy drinks and alcohol) are very dehydrating (the caffeine in Red Bull, Monster et al is a diuretic). Dehydration can hinder your body’s ability to metabolise alcohol and will increase the toxicity, and therefore, the hangover, the next day.

NAFDAC’s intervention

Characteristic of its promptitude in responding to public complaints on issues of the healthy value of food and drugs, NAFDAC had as far back as 2008 warned pregnant women, victims of diabetes, children and those with high blood pressure to desist from consuming energy drinks. A spokesperson for NAFDAC had warned that: ‘I don’t see why this set of people should go for it. We made a clear public publication on it.”

Stressing the issue further he reiterated that: “Energy drink is being taken everywhere in the world and not only in Nigeria, and we have to register a number of them. But there is a caveat that pregnant women should not take energy drinks as well as women and those allergic to caffeine.

“Anything that is taken overdose can cause troubles for the body, even water. Everything in life is about moderation.”

The Agency also talked about the fact that it is aware of the importation of unregistered energy drinks due to the porous borders. And that some people have been recruited across the local government councils to monitor the presence of such fake and harmful products. Its statement said that ‘we need to understand that there are other clandestine activities and people, who bring in these drinks on daily basis. We have two hotlines dedicated to this cause, to enable us achieve these.”

One’s admonition is that we should help NAFDAC to help us. That precisely, is what members of the National and Lagos State House of Assembly’s Health Committees did in considering a bill to ban outright the importation of such drinks that could put the tender and delicate health of our children in great peril. They all need our support to succeed.

As concerned Nigerians are worried about the increase in the rate of death of young Nigerians from addiction to hard drugs, one area parents, school authorities and religious institutions should take a look at is the consumption of energy drinks. Many are hazardous to human health. Prevention is better than cure. A stitch in time saves nine.


Ayo Oyoze Baje

Energy Drinks
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