31 Jan, 2013 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion first published in the Herald Sun, 1 February 2013.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

In a time-poor society, everyone’s looking for a quick fix. But the reality is you’re not going to find it in a shiny can of energy drink by the cash register.

Consumers need to be aware that these products aren’t going to deliver a miracle. The only thing you’re forking out for is a whole load of marketing guff. 

Modern life is tiring. It’s no wonder the promise of quick pick-me-up vitamin-infused miracle drink is so tempting. But what you’re really buying is a massive dose of sugar, salt and caffeine. Drink enough of them, and you’re increasing risk of obesity, stroke and type 2 diabetes. 

As reported in the Herald Sun, last year, Australians drank 225 million litres of energy drinks, which is around 10 litres per person. And as they surge in popularity, these products are also rapidly expanding in size. 

Over the past year, almost all energy drink brands have upsized their products and placement in major supermarkets has become more in-your-face. Take note next time you’re at a supermarket. Dedicated fridges stacked full of brightly coloured cans and bottles have replaced chocolates in the impulse buy checkout lane. 

Last year, V Australia introduced a 1.25 litre sized ‘share pack’ to the market. Heavily flogged on Facebook, this huge caffeine hit has prompted a wave of commentary from young V enthusiasts boasting they can drink it in one sitting. 

One of these mega Vs is equivalent to six mugs of instant coffee, 25 teaspoons of sugar and a 100 gram block of chocolate. It’s also inexplicably high in sodium, the same as a 200 gram pack of salted potato chips. That’s one seriously unhealthy combination. 

The thing is, none of the vitamin and mineral additives in energy drinks are required in the typical Australian diet. The vast majority of us are not deficient in things like Taurine or Vitamin B, so the nutrients cannot be stored. Essentially, you’re paying for an empty promise. 

And as we learn more about energy drinks, it is becoming clear that they are far from innocent. 

An Australian study of 297 calls made to the Poisons Information Hotline concerning energy drinks from 2004 to 2010, found the most common complaints were heart palpitations, agitation, tremor and upset stomachs. Twenty-one people reported serious cardiac and neurological symptoms, including hallucinations, seizures and heart problems. At least 128 required hospitalisation. A five-fold increase in calls to the Poisons Information Line in just six years related to energy drinks is cause for concern. 

So what can be done about the mushrooming energy drinks market? While VicHealth is not interested in pushing for a ban, there’s a few ways we can curb it before it does serious harm to young people in particular. 

Currently, the Federal Government is undertaking an enquiry into energy drinks to find exactly how much of a health risk they pose. VicHealth is very keen to see the results of this enquiry. Consumers deserve to know the facts about what they’re buying. 

The manufacturers of energy drinks will say that Australia has the most stringent regulations in the world, but the reality is that it isn’t enough. The warnings are written in tiny writing. There’s no cap on how big these drinks can get. And while they claim no product is marketed at kids, social media tells a different story. Why would they be marketed as a homework aid if this were not the case? 

The average energy drink enthusiast is 17-years-old. And we know that young people love mixing them with alcohol. This dangerous practice has lead to confirmed deaths overseas and pre-packaged alcoholic energy drinks are associated with the death of a Victorian teenager last year. VicHealth called for a ban on alcoholic energy drinks at the time, yet nothing has happened. 

To be fair, consuming the amount of caffeine in the safe daily limit of energy drinks (400 millilitres) won’t do you much harm. But the 44 grams of sugar you’re ingesting might. After all, you wouldn’t add nine teaspoons of sugar to your coffee. 

So while we don’t agree that a ban on energy drinks is necessary, we do want energy drink manufacturers to show more concern for the potential for harm to children. In a country where 7 million of us will be obese in only 15 years, we need to do everything we can to protect the current and future generations from the devastating illnesses associated with sugary drinks.

- Jerril