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Beware the monster in your energy drink

- Refilwe Mabula

Q&A: Dr Aviva Tugendhaft, Deputy Director of PRICELESS SA sheds light on what energy drinks really do to the body.

There’s a buzz around energy drinks. Advertisers sell heightened mental alertness, zest and invigoration to those desperate for a boost in their energy levels. But what are energy-hungry individuals really consuming, and could the energy drink “kick” compromise health? Refilwe Mabula asked Dr Aviva Tugendhaft, Deputy Director of PRICELESS SA in the School of Public Health at Wits.

Energy drinks, sugar, and sugertax on SSBs. © Curiosity | 

People seem to be drinking energy drinks for refreshment and not just for energy. Can you explain this? 

Energy drinks are available at all beverage retailers across the city. Over the years, there has also been a steady increase in the advertising and marketing of energy drinks as competitors fight for their stake in the marketplace. Marketers have created a misconception that energy drinks are healthier than other beverages and allege that they provide improvement in mental or physical performance. 

Teetotallers tend to drink energy drinks as an alternative to alcohol. Is this advisable? And could this be because the colour of some energy drinks is similar to some alcoholic beverages? 

Energy drinks are widely available and due to intensive, robust marketing campaigns, they have been popularised. I therefore do not suspect that the colour of the energy drink has anything to do with it being an alternative non-alcoholic drink for teetotallers, but rather that energy drinks are available in places where alcohol is consumed. There is also a “buzz” created by consuming energy drinks, which teetotallers seek as an alternative to alcohol. However, energy drinks come with their own negative health implications, which last longer than the extra kick they promise. 

What ingredients in energy drinks are harmful to the body? 

The two ingredients that are the most harmful in energy drinks are sugar and caffeine. Excess caffeine intake can result in a number of health issues including hypertension, nausea, vomiting, convulsions and kidney damage, amongst others. A high intake of caffeine also poses a risk to particular groups, specifically pregnant women and children. The high sugar content in energy drinks can lead to obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and cancer. To put it in context, in one single 250ml serving of an energy drink, there are seven teaspoons of sugar. This is far more than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) daily limit on sugar. People who are almost dependent on energy drinks for a boost often consume more than one serving a day. 

How much caffeine and sugar should one consume daily?

For added sugar, there is no recommended daily allowance but there is a recommended daily limit. In other words, we do not need to consume added sugar, but the WHO recommends limiting this consumption to no more than 6 teaspoons a day. There is also no recommended daily allowance for caffeine. 

Are there any natural and less harmful alternatives to energy drinks? 

Yes, water! Or a handful of nuts with a banana for energy. These come without the caffeine and sugar crash that energy drinks cause. Most importantly, they have no negative health implications and are recommended for a healthy diet.