Friday 19 January 2024

Energy drinks may be commercially lucrative but what is more valuable than the health of our children?

Posted by Amelia A Lake, Professor of Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University, and Shelina Visram, Senior Lecturer in Public Health at Newcastle University

As we prepared our new review on the health effects of the consumption of energy drinks by children and young people, we have been dwelling more and more on the Commercial Determinants of Health.
The Commercial Determinants of Health are defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as: 

“...the private sector activities that affect people’s health, directly or indirectly, positively or negatively.”

The WHO definition goes on to expand on how these activities might include the private sector influencing:
“...the social, physical and cultural environments through business actions and societal engagements; for example, supply chains, labour conditions, product design and packaging, research funding, lobbying, preference shaping and others.”
Now cast your mind back to pre-Covid… a Government consultation on the banning of energy drinks had a 93% backing to restrict the sale of these drinks to under 16s. There was even a Green Paper proposing this. Yet, there has been inaction (helpfully summarised here by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming).

What is causing this inaction? Is it a turnaround in evidence that suggests these drinks are not as harmful as previously thought, or is there something else going on...? Perhaps, instead there are some pretty significant commercial interests at stake; but what could be more valuable than the health and wellbeing of our children and young people?

Energy Drinks are VERY commercially viable. They have been the fastest growing sector of the soft drink market for some time. In 2020 the global market was worth $45.80 billion and this is projected to grow at an annual rate of 8.2%. In an article in December 2023, The Grocer described the hydration drink and energy drink market as “buoyant”.

Research has found that around one in three young people (under 18) say that they regularly consume energy drinks, typically containing high levels of caffeine and sugar in combination with other ingredients known to have stimulant properties. On average, young people in the UK consume more energy drinks than those in other European countries.

You may be familiar with the labelling on energy drinks:

Image courtesy of (by URL)
High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breast-feeding women

Under current labelling rules, any drink, other than tea or coffee, that contains over 150mg of caffeine per litre requires this label and should state the amount of caffeine in milligrams per 100ml of the drink.

Yet why do we see these drinks unrestricted and available to children and young people, not just in the UK but globally? Some countries have attempted to regulate energy drinks (see our research for more on this).

Our new review of the global evidence around energy drinks and the health impacts on children and young people shows a worrying increase in the types of health outcomes associated with their consumption. This includes mental as well as physical health behaviours. Not only health impacts but wider impacts around sleep and educational attainment.

This new review is the latest of many which have highlighted the impacts of these products to our younger population.

We accept the evidence is from mostly cross-sectional studies, exploring association rather than causation. Experimental studies to establish causation have both ethical and feasibility issues. We have argued before that the precautionary principle should be applied. This country bans the sale of a number of items to young people (fireworks, crossbows, knives) presumably these don’t have the large commercial interests or lobbying groups that the energy drink industry has?

Why are we applying a higher standard of evidence to energy drinks, if it isn’t around their commercial value?

The evidence is here, the labels clearly say these drinks are not suitable for children. How many more studies are needed before policy action is enacted?


Fuse Podcast about this Energy Drinks research
Listen to the latest episode of the Fuse podcast ‘Public Health Research and Me’, in which host and Fuse Public Partner Cheryl Blake chats with Amelia and Shelina about their research, to cut through the confusion and ask some the questions that you want to know about Energy Drinks.
Listen now

Find out more

2. Courtesy of (by URL) > Parliamentary business > Publications & records > Energy drinks and children > 4 Labelling and advertising: 

The views and opinions expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Teesside University, Newcastle University, or Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health.

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