Foodwatch's initiative: Energy drinks should be banned for minors - are Red Bull and Co really as bad as their reputation?

Energy drinks can be really fun.

Foodwatch's initiative: Energy drinks should be banned for minors - are Red Bull and Co really as bad as their reputation?

Energy drinks can be really fun. They drive away tiredness, make you more productive and can even improve your mood, even if only for a short time - thanks to sugar and caffeine. Due to their stimulating effect, the energy boosters are particularly popular with children and young people. And this is exactly what scientists and consumer advocates increasingly see as a problem. Because the caffeine and sugar bombs are considered a health risk.

Some countries have therefore already placed age restrictions on the sale of energy drinks. The federal government must “finally take the urgent warnings of science seriously and protect children from dangerous stimulants,” say consumer advocates at Foodwatch, who are once again making the debate about a ban an issue. After all, a half-liter can of the drinks already contains more caffeine "than a normal-weight twelve-year-old should consume in a day." Are energy drinks really as bad as their reputation? An overview.

The consumer advice center has broken down what energy drinks are made of. Accordingly, they are usually composed of water, sugar/sweeteners, acidulants, acidity regulators, carbonic acid and caffeine. There are often additives such as taurine or guarana seed extract, ginseng root extract or B vitamins.

As the name suggests, energy drinks are intended to provide energy and make you awake. Ingredients such as caffeine and sugar provide the push effect. These cause blood pressure and pulse to rise, the vessels to expand and the nervous system to be stimulated. But the short-term boost comes with a catch. Studies have shown, among other things, that excessive consumption can worsen sleep and put strain on the heart. Negative effects on the psyche are also reported.

Caffeine: After consumption, it takes about ten minutes for the caffeine to take effect and for blood pressure and pulse to rise. The caffeine also ensures that the ability to concentrate increases. There are around 80 milligrams of caffeine in a 250 milliliter can of energy drink. That's about as much as in a cup of coffee, says the consumer advice center. As is often the case, the quantity makes the poison. In addition to insomnia, nervousness and headaches, the undesirable side effects of caffeine also include high blood pressure, palpitations, cardiac arrhythmias and circulatory collapse.

Sugar: The blood sugar level also reaches its peak after about ten minutes and dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine is also known as the happiness hormone that conveys positive feelings. It also has an activating and motivating effect. So-called “sugar flashes” can be fun, but too much sugar is unhealthy. There is no skimping on sugar in energy drinks. According to the consumer advice center, there are around ten sugar cubes in a 250 milliliter can. In some energy drinks the sugar content is 16 percent. Among other things, sugar increases the risk of diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

Taurine: Taurine is also said to have a performance-enhancing effect. Such an effect has not been proven. However, scientists suspect that taurine could increase the effects of caffeine. However, this has not yet been proven. Apart from that, taurine has, among other things, anti-inflammatory properties. As a rule, there is no need to substitute taurine; it is supplied in sufficient quantities through the diet.

Other ingredients in energy drinks generally do not have a performance-enhancing effect. However, the acidifying agents contained attack the teeth. Studies also suggest that ingredients such as saccharin, which are used as a substitute in sugar-free energy drinks, have a negative effect on intestinal flora and glucose metabolism.

The maximum limit for caffeine that the Fruit Juice and Soft Drinks Ordinance specifies for soft drinks containing caffeine is 320 milligrams per liter. The European Safety Authority states that single doses of up to 200 milligrams of caffeine and 400 milligrams spread throughout the day are harmless to health for adults. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, the maximum value is 200 milligrams per day. Children and adolescents should not consume more than 3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

If the caffeine content is more than 150 milliliters, this must be noted on the product in accordance with the Food Information Regulation with a note that consumption is not recommended for children or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding due to the increased caffeine content.

After evaluating 57 studies involving over 1.2 million children from 21 countries, the British research group Fuse came to the conclusion that children and young people who consume energy drinks have an increased risk of developing mental health problems. The work, which was published in January 2024, mentions, among other things, anxiety, stress, depression and suicidal thoughts.

"In particular, the cardiac arrhythmias associated with the consumption of energy drinks can lead to a medical emergency, as study data shows. In addition, excessive consumption is associated with increased blood pressure. We therefore assume that both acute and chronic excessive consumption the risk for the heart and blood vessels increases,” said Dr. Felix Oberhoffer from the Department of Pediatric Cardiology and Pediatric Intensive Care Medicine at the University of Munich Hospital to the German Heart Foundation.

Drinks like the “Vodka Bull” never go out of style. The combination of alcohol and energy drink is particularly popular at parties as it creates a kind of "awake" high. In other words: consumers feel fitter and more sane than they are and - studies suggest - they are also more willing to take risks.

"Many people don't know that additional alcohol consumption or strenuous physical activity further increases the undesirable effects of caffeine," said Andreas Hense, President of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, in a statement. Excessive consumption can lead to sweating, nausea and even circulatory collapse.

The fact is that energy drinks, which are usually very sweet and taste artificial, are particularly popular with children and young people, but at the same time they are considered particularly at risk from stimulant drinks. Consumer advocates have long been campaigning for the sale of drinks with increased caffeine content to minors to be regulated. So far without success. Other countries are already further ahead; there are now age restrictions in Sweden, Poland and Latvia, for example.

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) also sees children and young people as a risk group “for whom increased health risks can arise, particularly for the cardiovascular system”. In a survey, the BfR found that one in ten children and young people in Germany consume large quantities of energy drinks of one liter or more on certain occasions, which is well above the recommended maximum daily amount.

Sources: Consumer Center, BfR, BfR 2, EFSA, Fruit Juice and Soft Drinks Ordinance, BMEL, Energy Drinks Study, Heart Foundation, Energy Drinks Youth Study

NEXT NEWS