New statistics uncovered that up to half of children worldwide, and up to a third of children in the UK, consume energy drinks weekly.
Energy drinks are promoted to increase energy, enhance mental alertness and physical performance. An average 250 ml energy drink contains a similar amount of caffeine to a 60 ml espresso. Evidence shows that the consumption of the drinks can have serious health effects, particularly in children, teenagers, and young adults.
The study identified that energy drink consumption on five or more days of the week was associated with some health and behavioural issues. Whilst the secondary analysis of the available data helped to fill the evidence gap, most of the data were derived from surveys, making it impossible to distinguish cause from effect, cautioned the research.
The research is published in the open-access journal BMJ Open.
Energy drinks intervention
In 2018, the UK Government ran a consultation regarding banning the sale of energy drinks to children, but due to only two UK studies having available evidence, additional UK data was sought, and secondary analysis of relevant data was carried out to ensure relevance to the UK policy.
The researchers wanted to understand what type and how many energy drinks UK teens were consuming. Furthermore, they wanted to explore the potential impact on young people’s physical, mental health and behaviour.
In July 2021, the researchers updated their original relevant research from nine databases carried out in May 2018. Two further systematic reviews were added to the original 13, covering a total of 74 studies published in English since 2013. Six of these 15 reviews reported on prevalence, and 14 reported on associations between consumption and health or behaviour.
The additional analysis included data representative of the UK or one of the devolved nations, including information on the levels and patterns of energy drink consumption amongst children and the potential effects on cardiovascular health, mental health, neurological conditions, academic achievement, substance misuse, or sleep.
What did the researchers find?
The researchers uncovered in the systematic review data that worldwide, between 13% and 67% of children had consumed energy drinks in the preceding year.
Analysis of the additional data indicated that between 3% and 32% of children across the UK consumed energy drinks on at least one day of the week, with no difference by ethnic background. Frequent consumption, defined as drinking an energy drink on five or more days of the week, was associated with poor mental and physical health, and overall poor wellbeing compared to those who did not consume energy drinks.
Evidence from the reviews indicates consistent associations between energy drinks and self-harm, suicide, hyperactivity, academic performance, and school attendance. Evidence from both the reviews and UK data suggested that boys drank more than girls, with consumption rising in tandem with age; and that consumption was associated with more headaches, sleep problems, alcohol use, smoking, irritability, and school exclusion. But the application of a quality grading system (GRADE) suggests that the evidence is weak. This is because most of the data for the reviews came from cross-sectional surveys, while none of the additional data included long term information. It was impossible to pool the survey data from the reviews because of the differences in design and measures reported.
“These data support the idea that there is a link between drinking caffeinated energy drinks and poorer health and behaviour in children, although the cause is unclear,” wrote the researchers.
They concluded: “Based on a comprehensive overview of available systematic reviews, we conclude that up to half of the children, worldwide, drink caffeinated energy drinks weekly or monthly, and based on the dataset analysis, up to a third of UK children do so.”
They added: “There is weak but consistent evidence, from reviews and UK datasets, that poorer health and wellbeing is found in children who drink caffeinated energy drinks. In the absence of randomised controlled trials, which are unlikely to be ethical, longitudinal studies could provide stronger evidence.”