CSE laboratory tests show energy drinks contain excess caffeine; their market grows without checks
A youth enters a south Delhi bar, greets the bartender and orders “the usual”. The drink, it turns out, is Red Bull plus vodka. Prod him a little and Manoj Joshi, a law student, says there is no better drink on the menu. It tastes great, he says, and will see him through the night at the club.
Red Bull and Burn, both energy drinks, are popular in the age group of 25-30. Women prefer them for the taste, says Santosh Kumar, manager of a Delhi nightclub. Ninety per cent of the sales of energy drinks in India are due to their consumption with alcohol, says Sameer Barde of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. These contain high doses of caffeine, a powerful psycho-stimulant, believed to counter effects of alcohol by warding off drowsiness. Studies reveal otherwise.
“The combination of energy drinks and alcohol can impair cognitive function and reduce symptoms of alcohol intoxication, including depressant effects, increasing probability of alcohol dependence,” writes John P Higgins in a paper published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2010. Higgins, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston, is a co-author of the paper, Energy Beverages: Content and Safety.
The alcohol-energy drinks combination can affect other organs. “Alcohol inhibits breakdown of nutrients into usable compounds by decreasing secretion of digestive enzymes. Electrolyte imbalance, nausea and heart irregularities can occur from excessive consumption of the combo drink,” says Anoop Misra, director of Centre for Internal Medicine at Fortis Hospital in Delhi.
India’s apex food regulatory body—the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)—defines energy drinks as non-alcoholic beverages, containing ingredients like caffeine, guarana, taurine and ginseng that act as stimulants. But it is yet to draft rules to tame energy drinks. The term energy drinks is a misnomer, say health experts. Except for sugar, other ingredients do not provide energy. The “feeling” of energy comes from caffeine.
Energy drinks v sports drinks
The popularity of energy drinks is not restricted to bars and clubs. Joshi says many students consume it during exams to stay awake. Sports and gym enthusiasts, too, are consuming them. They treat energy drinks as a substitute for sports drinks, to rehydrate the body. Retailers play a role in promoting them. They display sports and energy drinks side by side, creating confusion among consumers. The association of energy drinks with sports events—Red Bull owns a Formula 1 racing team—compounds the confusion. Ireland has recommended a ban on promotion of Red Bull at sports events (see ‘Think before you drink’, Down To Earth, March 1-15, 2011).
Countries like Denmark, Uruguay and Turkey have banned energy drinks altogether while Sweden has banned its sale among children. The European Food Safety Authority mandates that energy drinks with over 150 parts per million (ppm) or 150 mg per litre caffeine content should be labelled as ones with “high caffeine content” and the exact amount should be indicated; Australia has banned energy drinks with over 320 ppm caffeine level and proposes to classify them as pharma products.
Red Bull India Pvt Ltd, however, advises athletes to consume the drink half an hour before an event. Those competing in intense sports events can consume one or two cans during the event or at half-time break with adequate water; it can also be consumed after an event to aid recovery, the company says. The company stressed that Red Bull is not a fluid replacement and that a lot of water should be taken with the beverage. But this advice is missing from the label.
Fitness clubs and gyms promote energy drinks as easily as they would a sports drink. Olympia, a Delhi gym, suggests Red Bull (sugar free) is best consumed 30 to 40 minutes before exercise. They do not mention water. Others like Fitness First are against energy drinks. “The best drink during exercise is water. Red Bull should be the least preferred drink even during intense workout because of the high caffeine content,” says Kulbir Singh, fitness manager of the gym.
Products promoted as sports drinks have glucose and electrolytes that replenish body fluids during strenuous activities. But they, too, should be taken with caution. “Typically, a sports drink like Gatorade or PowerAde are okay, but then again, they can still have higher levels of sugars than needed if your exercise is not that intense,” says Higgins.
Energy drinks, on the other hand, rapidly increase energy and endurance. They temporarily increase heart and respiratory rate and blood pressure. A paper published earlier this year in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, states that energy drinks are not designed to hydrate the body.
The proprietary question
The energy drinks market in India is pegged at Rs 250 crore and is growing annually at 20 per cent. Since Red Bull made its debut in 2002, many imported brands (Burn, Monster) and Indian brands (Cloud, Tzinga) have entered the market. Energy drinks were put in the proprietary food category, for which there were no standards in the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Act of 1954.
Energy drinks made news in 2005 when the Central Food Laboratory (CFL) at Mysore, under the direction of the customs authority at Chennai, tested Red Bull as a carbonated beverage. The consignment was seized as the drink did not conform to the standards for carbonated beverages, for which a caffeine cap of 200 ppm was mandated. Red Bull’s caffeine content was about 320 ppm. There was lack of clarity on standards—the PFA authority at the Centre had registered the beverage as a proprietary product; the state food authorities conducted tests keeping in view norms for carbonated beverages.
Red Bull challenged the findings of CFL in the Madras High Court. It pleaded that the drink be treated as proprietary product, not carbonated beverage. The court ruled in favour of Red Bull, but CFL continued testing energy drinks as carbonated beverage. The company dragged CFL to court for contempt.
Red Bull was in trouble again when regulations for proprietary food were amended in September 2008. The change in Rule 37-A(2) of the PFA Act states that proprietary foods have to conform to the standards under appendices of the PFA Act and Rules. The amendment implied that energy drinks would have to conform to a caffeine cap of 200 ppm, so far applicable to carbonated beverages.
Six months on, the caffeine limit in carbonated drinks was lowered to 145 ppm on the recommendations of the Central Committee for Food Standards.
After this amendment, the customs department at Chennai again seized consignments of energy drinks; tests by CFL showed these violated rules. Red Bull again moved court, this time challenging the amendment. The Madras High Court, on May 20, 2010, granted an interim stay on the amendment, which was extended in July 2010, till further notice.
With the stay, energy drinks continue to be sold as proprietary food and the number of players are increasing. Some brands are being sold with a caffeine content of 320 ppm, which Red Bull claims is safe. Some of the manufacturers have limited the caffeine content in their product to 145 ppm while others are touching the 320 ppm mark. “About 100 ppm is the typical level of caffeine in colas. Hence it would be incorrect to categorise any beverage with that level of caffeine as an energy drink,” says a statement issued by Red Bull. The JMJ group that owns the brand XXX energy drinks and claims 100 ppm caffeine in its products did not respond to mailed queries.
Going slow on standards
FSSAI, meanwhile, is going slow on making rules for energy drinks. It formed an expert group which noted that there should be a justification for fixing caffeine limit at 320 ppm. The group called for a risk assessment study by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) at Hyderabad. NIN gave a clean chit to high caffeine levels in energy drinks.
The NIN report became the basis for the proposed regulations for energy drinks. The technical committee formed in November 2010 at the behest of FSSAI’s scientific committee borrowed liberally from the NIN report when it met a month later. The panel has recommended a caffeine limit of 320 ppm (see ‘What FSSAI proposes’).
“The recommendations of this committee cover all major concerns about energy beverages. They are at par with global standards and should be able to cater to all possible apprehensions,” says K C Gupta, director of Indian Institute of Toxicology Research. He is a member of expert committee. But these recommendations have a long way to go. “They will be considered in the scientific committee meeting scheduled on July 29 and then go to the food authority. It will take another three months for the regulations to be notified and sent to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare,” says S C Kathuria, deputy assistant director general (PFA) with FSSAI.
Pick your fix
While the controversy over energy drinks continues, what needs to be kept in mind is that there are other sources of caffeine in one’s daily diet—coffee, tea and carbonated beverages. FSSAI needs to fix the standard for energy drinks after considering the existing consumption pattern. Denmark, for example, banned energy drinks because the daily consumption of caffeine of its population was already very high.
“The predominant source of caffeine is either tea or coffee. High consumption of soft drinks pose an added concern. The labels should clearly mention the safe daily intake level for a consumer,” says Ashok Kanchan of VOICE, a consumer advocacy group in Delhi.
The technical committee of FSSAI has identified ranges of caffeine intake: low range at 80-250 mg/day, moderate at 300-400 mg/day and high range of 500 mg and above. The committee said low and moderate consumption of caffeine posed no health risk. Experts disagree.
The risk assessment report of NIN states the current consumption of caffeine in India is low and there is scope for more consumption. But the NIN report is largely based on literature review. There is no sample study which has recorded daily intake of caffeine by people and the impact any additional intake will have. By estimating consumption on a per capita basis, which is quite low considering India’s billion plus population, the NIN report has actually discounted the adverse impact of energy drinks on a large caffeine consuming section of the population.
The cap that FSSAI is proposing for energy drinks—320 ppm caffeine and two cans of energy drinks per day—means a person will consume about 160 mg caffeine every day from energy drinks alone. There will then be little room for consuming tea or coffee.
“Low doses of caffeine—20 mg to 200 mg/day—have been found to improve mood and alertness. But caffeine in energy drinks can easily exceed the amount necessary to promote cognitive functioning,” says Misra. “This may result in high blood pressure and heart rhythm irregularity. Certain deaths due to consumption of caffeine through these beverages have also been reported,” he warns. (see ‘Health impacts of ingredients in energy drinks’).
So far FSSAI has not heeded the warning. Neither have the likes of Joshi looking for that extra boost to party all night long.