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Are energy drinks bad for health?

Posted on | Last updated 20-08-2020

Caffeine, in one form or other, is consumed more than any other psychoactive drug in the world. In the USA it’s estimated that 85% of adults consume caffeine regularly, with average intake being 180mg per day (compared to the global average of 70mg).

Recent and high-quality UK data is harder to find. Some 1984 data suggested that UK consumption may be even higher than it is in the USA, with our average intake at that time being three times the intake of those over the pond. Some more recent estimations are a little more conservative, and some others suggest intake is higher. Overall the total intake is difficult to quantify, but daily intake does seem to be the norm rather than the exception. Indeed, the popularity of caffeine is undeniable, but with that comes one critical question:

What is it doing to us?

We are all familiar with the main benefit of caffeine; namely its ability to pick you up when you’re tired, but what else is it doing? Concerns abound, with talking points typically involving the ways in which caffeine affects our cardiovascular system, ability to sleep, and even psychological wellbeing with talk of addiction being increasingly popular.

These points need to be addressed, and that’s why we’re here.

When did we start drinking so much caffeine?

According to the book entitled ‘A Brief History of Drugs, from the Stone Age to the Stoned Age’ which we only mention by name because that title is brilliant, caffeine has more than likely been consumed since before humans really had anything that could truly be called a civilisation. Initially, nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes would have likely chewed bark, seeds or leaves of plants in order to increase energy and vigour, only discovering the idea of using them to make drinks later. Many civilisations have stories or legends of their ancestors discovering this brewing process, such as Shennong, a Chinese emperor from around 3000BC, who is said to have discovered by accident that when certain leaves fall into water, it makes what he described as a restorative drink (4). Tea is the oldest known caffeine source, and arguably one of the most culturally relevant ones. It’s not the only source of caffeine, however, and as the years went on humans found more and more ways to get the buzz they wanted. First came cocoa which was used in South America by 600BC, but then came the truly big hitter – coffee, the most popular caffeine source worldwide.

One common myth attributes the discovery of coffee to a 9th century Ethiopian goat herder called Kaldi, who found that some of his goats became extremely energetic after eating certain berries. Wanting to achieve the same experience, he tried the berries himself and discovered increased energy and alertness. He supposedly then brought the berries to local monks who disapproved of this practice and threw them into a fire – the amazing smell brought them to remove the chars from a fire and place them in water, thus creating the first cup of coffee. There are numerous other tales, none of which truly have any evidence to back them, as you would expect.

The first substantiated information does, however, bring us to Ethiopia. The ancestors of the present-day Oromo ethnic group are believed to be the first who recognised the stimulant effects of the coffee plant, with hunters using it to keep them awake during multi-day hunting trips. It grew in popularity across the Islamic world thereafter thanks to its ability to help consumers fast during the day and stay awake at night during Ramadan.

Indeed, the historic popularity of coffee here has resulted in the drink even being associated with Mohammad’s birthday, thanks to a legend suggesting he brought it to mankind, via Archangel Gabriel, to replace the wine which is prohibited in the Islamic faith.

European consumption of coffee didn’t take on until the 17th century, when travellers returned from Egypt with what they called at the time ‘Arabian wine’. Coffee houses in Constantinople and Venice quickly opened, with the first opening in London in 1652, in Cornhill, London. Another called Queen’s Lane in Oxford, opening just two years later, is still open today! Of course, much like tea, the coffee trade soon had significant cultural, economic and political ramifications, often being banned by religious figures and national leaders and funding enormous (for the time) multinational distribution corporations.

Freidrich Ferdinand Runge, a German chemist, was the first to isolate caffeine and now, thanks to others continuing his work, the world’s most popular psychoactive drug can be found in synthetic forms in tablets, energy drinks and much, much more. Caffeine is now such a strong cultural influence and so prevalent that it’s often difficult to see it, much like you can no longer feel the watch on your wrist until you pay attention to it being there.

Caffeine is big business

For an example of just how important caffeine is to our culture, consider the following:

Starbucks is currently worth $79billion, making $23.5billion in sales per year and employing 277,000 people at the time of writing. It’s also ranked number 30 on Forbes’ list of most valuable brands.

Starbucks’ business empire is impressive, but that’s only a small part of the picture. At the time of writing there are 988 Starbucks stores in the UK if you combine company-owned and licensed operations which can be added to the 2,422 Costa stores and 637 Caffe Nero stores (as of 2017) alongside smaller chains, independent operations, and other coffee-selling outfits like McDonalds. You can’t go anywhere without having access to coffee, and that’s not to mention the ubiquitousness of tea!

But what about energy drinks? 

Alongside the coffee empire and British tea culture is the growing market of energy drinks, which are the fastest growing soft drink in terms of consumption rates. These range from the comparatively mild Red Bull (80mg per can) and Monster (usually  around 150mg per can) to stronger products such as Bang! (300mg per can), and have found their way in to almost everywhere that you can buy drinks; from supermarkets to vending machines, fridges in petrol stations and even clubs and bars.

In fact, Monster Beverage Corp is worth roughly $27.7billion, with sales of $3.5billion. Not bad for a company selling caffeinated soft drinks that only started in 2002...

Who is drinking it all? 

In the 21st century we have a number of different sources for our fix, and it’s probably not surprising that the choice you make differs with age. Most people start consuming caffeine in childhood through chocolate and soft drinks such as cola, then as children reach adolescence, they start to add energy drinks and coffee/tea (1). This is likely to be reflective of changing tastes as people age (children are better able to taste bitterness in food and drink) but also cultural norms and advertising – energy drinks, specifically, are marketed towards an adolescent/young adult audience whereas coffee is pitched in a more age-neutral manner. 

Interestingly, despite the massive increase in coffee and energy drink availability, no data exists to say that caffeine consumption in general has increased since the 1990’s, though some experts believe this is largely due to a lag in data, rather than it being a true reflection of our behaviour (in other words it hasn’t been properly studied recently enough for the difference to show). 

It’s very hard to imagine that we are really drinking less caffeine than before considering the increased availability and marketing of caffeine containing products. This is especially true when you consider that while coffee remains the most popular caffeinated drink in the world (the word caffeine is literally taken from the German word for coffee – Kaffee), energy drinks are the most popular source for adolescents, and this market is growing rapidly. With that being said we must be careful in making assumptions, as other experts explain this through simple replacement – those that like caffeine may be drawn to energy drinks in place of coffee sometimes, and so the growing market may reflect a spreading-out of intake, rather than an increase overall.

Regardless, the influence of caffeine and coffee on both our culture and day to day behaviour is undeniable. This tends to be explained by the exact same reasons as caffeine’s popularity around the time of its discovery – it wakes you up, can make you feel better when you’re tired, and can help you concentrate on things for longer than you otherwise would. A small search for ‘coffee quotes’ will turn up almost innumerable references to it (and by extension caffeine) being something that is not only desirable but almost necessary for the normal function of many people. It’s regularly described as a life force, a medicine, or as a vital ingredient without which a person is unable to wake up, speak to people, or be pleasant to talk to.

That can’t be a good thing, right? 

Is the fact that some people dread the idea of starting a day without coffee a problem? Or are we making a mountain out of a molehill?

Is caffeine harmful, beneficial, or neutral?

Is it leading us to long term ill health?

Is it having a dramatic effect on our sleep?

Want to read the rest and find out the truth behind claims of coffee and energy drinks harming our health? Click HERE to download our nutrition report, or listen to it in the BRAND NEW audio recording.

It’s a long one, though. Maybe put the kettle on…

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