Thursday, 10 September 2015

Energy drinks: Don't believe the hype

Guest post by Shelina Visram, Lecturer in the Centre for Public Policy and Health, Durham University

When asked where the idea for our study on energy drinks came from, I usually say it was through discussions with colleagues as part of another project I’m leading on in County Durham. But that's not strictly true. The original spark came from my experience a few years ago of lecturing at Northumbria University in the dreaded Tuesday 9am slot (student night in Newcastle is on a Monday), where I noticed some students regularly downing a couple of energy drinks throughout the lecture. This was my first encounter with these drinks being consumed during daylight hours and I was fascinated by the idea that some people might have them for breakfast. So this got me wondering - why would young, seemingly healthy students feel the need to use an artificial source of energy to get them through the day? Or was it just my lectures sending them back to sleep? (That is if they had even been to sleep).

Over the years I noticed more and more of these drinks appearing in shops, on TV shows, in adverts and as litter on the streets, and assumed that they were used primarily by adults to stay awake. Most cans and bottles state that these products are not recommended for children, given that they contain high levels of caffeine which children are advised to consume in ‘moderation’ [1]. But then I overheard a couple of external partners discussing energy drinks in the context of them being seen as a growing 'problem' in primary and secondary schools in County Durham. They were looking for support in scoping the evidence base and exploring what types of interventions or educational materials could be developed locally. Around the same time, a call was circulated via Fuse for research proposals to The Children’s Foundation [2]. Colleagues from Fuse and the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham University [3] were keen to collaborate on an application. We developed our proposal, were awarded funding, and the HYPER! (Hearing Young People’s views on Energy drinks: Research) study was born [4]. 

Since June 2014, the HYPER! study team has been busy: reviewing the published literature on children and young people’s use of energy drinks; conducting a series of focus groups and interviews with students, parents and staff from four local schools; and involving young people in a mapping exercise, drawing on their knowledge of the area around their school to identify local energy drink vendors. Here are some of the things we’ve learned:

  • If you come across a paper that says ‘energy drinks are good for you’, check to see if the work has been funded by Red Bull or conducted by someone with shares in PepsiCo.
  • Most papers that say ‘energy drinks are bad for you’ are based on expert opinion, rather than robust research.
  • Young people in the UK drink more energy drinks than those in other European countries, yet there are no published studies from the UK.
  • Sales restrictions might seem like a sensible option; they would help to send a clear message but our study participants had concerns that they would be difficult to enforce.
  • The strong influence of the marketing activities of energy drink companies should not be underestimated.
  • Any interventions should ideally involve children and young people, as well as parents, schools, retailers and the industry.
  • There is a lot of confusion around whether energy drinks are safe for children, and parents, teachers and young people need help to make more informed choices.  At least one young person in all but one of our focus groups thought that energy drinks contained bull or horse sperm [5]. They don’t.
There are still lots of unanswered questions. For example, if the government requires energy drinks to carry warnings stating that they are not recommended for children, why are manufacturers allowed to market them so obviously towards young people? What are the long-term health and other effects? Is there a link to health inequalities? And why would anyone knowingly drink something that they thought contained bull sperm? We’re hoping to answer some of these questions by conducting further research so please get in touch if you’d like to collaborate with us or if you’re already involved in work on energy drinks. We would love to hear from you.

You can find out more about this study by reading the new Fuse Brief here.

Shelina spoke about the HYPER! study at the CPPH/Wolfson Seminar - Sweetness, social norms and schools: factors influencing children and young people’s food and drink practices (9 September)

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