Why sugar free energy drinks are still bad for your health

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 30: A variety of energy drinks for sale in a supermarket on August 30, 2018 in London, England. British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced government plans to ban the sale of energy drinks to under 18s in England amid health concerns. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Research has shown energy drinks can impact our health negatively. (Getty Images)

Energy drinks are popular throughout the UK, especially among younger generations, but research shows that they can be detrimental to our health. Some Brits are turning to sugar-free alternatives in a bid to be 'healthier', however, experts say these alternatives are not a healthier option - and highlight that sugar isn't the main culprit of the issues energy drinks may cause.

Most recently, doctors in the US warned that drinking energy drinks could put people with heart disease at risk of severe consequences like sudden cardiac arrest.

A study conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic, published in the Elsevier journal Heart Rhythm, examined the medical data of 144 patients who survived a cardiac arrest after emergency treatment. They found that seven patients, aged between 20 and 42, had consumed an energy drink before the life-threatening cardiac arrest. Three of them drank energy drinks on a regular basis and four had a type of genetic heart condition.

Other lifestyle factors were also taken into account, including sleep deprivation, dehydration, dieting, extreme fasting, vaping, and antibiotic medication. The researchers said that, combined with the energy drink consumption, these could have created a "perfect storm" for cardiac arrest to take place.

Peter J Schwartz, from the Centre for Cardiac Arrhythmias of Genetic Origin and Laboratory of Cardiovascular Genetics in Milan, Italy, acknowledged in an editorial that critics may dismiss the findings as "association by chance".

However, he added: "We, as well as the Mayo Clinic group, are perfectly aware that there is no clear and definitive evidence that energy drinks indeed cause life-threatening arrhythmias and that more data are necessary, but we would be remiss if we were not sounding the alarm."

Young man having strange chest pain
High levels of stimulants like caffeine in energy drinks can lead to heart issues. (Getty Images)

Dr Amelia Lake, professor of public health nutrition at Teesside University, tells Yahoo UK that there is no difference between regular energy drinks and their sugar-free alternatives.

Legal stimulants are the main ingredients in energy drinks that can increase alertness, attention, and energy. However, they are also known to increase blood pressure, heart rate and breathing - which have been associated with negative heart changes.

Most energy drinks contain large amounts of caffeine, ranging from 80mg to 300mg per serving. In comparison, a cup of coffee contains 100mg of caffeine.

There are some sugar-free versions dubbed ‘diet’ or ‘zero’ drinks that use sweeteners to reduce calorie content, but they still maintain high levels of caffeine and other stimulants, according to the British Dietetic Association.

This sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is often linked with diabetes, dental decay and increased BMI in young people, and low-sugar versions of energy drinks can promote loose stools and suppress appetite.

Dr Lake, who was the lead researcher on a major review of the physical and mental effects of energy drinks on children and young people released earlier this year by Fuse, notes that the beverages were associated with a significant increase in arrhythmia in healthy adolescents.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 30: A photo illustration of a variety of energy drinks available in British supermarkets on August 30, 2018 in London, England. British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced government plans to ban the sale of energy drinks to under 18s in England amid health concerns. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Energy drinks are very popular in the UK. (Getty Images)

"It can have a negative effect on heart rhythm and you don’t need to have an existing condition to have that negative effect," she says. "It also increased blood pressure and there also seems to be evidence around heart palpitations, anxiety, and increased urination."

The high levels of stimulants in energy drinks can also impact sleep. A lack of sleep leads to difficulty focusing and concentration, and impairs judgement.

Dr Lake adds: "Sleep affects so many other aspects of a young person’s brain and life, and losing sleep affects so many other things. We can see that people who regularly consume energy drinks are more likely to have sleep problems, poor academic performance, unhealthy dietary habits, and poor mental health."

Prime Energy Drink display in grocery store, Queens, New York. (Photo by: Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Drinks like Prime, which have an energy version, are extremely popular among young children and teenagers. (Getty Images)

In 2019, the Conservative government announced it would ban energy drinks from being sold to under-16s. The plan was scrapped in 2022 - but the Labour party has said it will bring the ban into force if it wins the general election on 4 July 2024.

Children would not be allowed to buy drinks like Prime, Monster and Red Bull. TV chef Jamie Oliver welcomed the proposal and said in a social media post: "It’s a small thing, but it is a big thing. When we have got some of the most unhealthy kids in Europe, we need to not have one thing, we need many, many things that are going to help make our kids fitter, healthier, have better outcomes and flourish, and be more productive as adults and cost the NHS less."

Oliver added: "You would be amazed if you saw how many kids have breakfast in the form of an energy drink."

Dr Lake says: "Bottom line, caffeine is not for children."

There have been numerous calls for the government to take stronger action on the sales of energy drinks.

Researchers from Fuse and more than 40 health-related organisations urged restrictions on the sale and marketing of energy drinks to children and young people.

Lord James Bethell, former health minister and chair of Business For Health, tells Yahoo UK: "The UK must get a hold of its consumption culture and the latest energy drink craze which has gripped the nation’s youths, is testament to this.

"In the UK, one third of children consume caffeinated energy drinks on a weekly basis, products which Labour have recently labelled as ‘toxic’ due to the levels of caffeine contained in each. Yet, all of these products are readily available on the UK shelves for children to buy.

"While we are all aware of the short-term issues which arise from children being hooked on caffeine and sugar, recent studies point to a far more concerning picture. Scientific papers such as 'The Dark Side of Energy Drinks' show that excessive consumption of energy drinks can lead to issues including depression and anxiety, as well as chronic conditions such as strokes.”

He continued: "The maximum recommended daily intake of free sugars in adults is 30g however current intakes are far higher on average, with 55g/day for men and 44g/day for women, double the recommended amount. Critically, 95% of children exceed age-specific recommendations on free sugar.

Up to 800,000 preventable cases of chronic diseases could be avoided over the next 25 years.

"We must strongly call for extending the Sugary Drinks Industry Levy and while this secured great initial success upon its launch, the levy needs robust reinforcement to further reduce levels of sugar and caffeine.

"In an ideal scenario, with strong engagement from both consumers and the industry, up to 800,000 preventable cases of chronic diseases could be avoided over the next 25 years. However, the onus is on the Government to action this, and ensure young Brits have the very best chance to lead healthy lives. Surrounding them with these sugar and caffeine traps, isn’t just irresponsible – it can be lethal."

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