High-sugar energy drinks ‘addictive as cocaine’ but ban won’t work expert warns

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High-sugar energy drinks are “as addictive as cocaine”, one nutritionist has warned amid reports Labour is considering a ban on the sale of the drink to under-16s if it wins power.

Sir Keir Starmer’s party is understood to be considering a ban on the sale of energy drinks to those under 16 in its election manifesto, amid the growing evidence of extreme health risks to young people from high-sugar, caffeinated beverages.

A recent government-commissioned study found at least one in three children in the UK consume at least one energy drink a week.

Dr Amelia Lake, professor of public health nutrition at Teesside University, who led the review, said the drinks are harmful to the mental and physical health of children and young people with symptoms related to the energy drinks ranging from increased anxiety and stress, to sleeping issues and increased violent tendencies.

Nutritionist Tracey Randell told i that most energy drinks that contain extreme levels of sugar can be “incredibly addictive” and provide the same dopamine hit as the class A drug, although banning them may not work as planned.

“The thing about sugar is that it is incredibly addictive. It’s as addictive as cocaine, the reason being is sugar feeds the dopamine pathways in the brain,” Ms Randell the lead nutritionist at IBS Clinics said.

“I don’t think that there’s anything good about these energy drinks in maturing brains in young people.

“Most energy drinks are really high in sugar – somewhere in the region of 13 to 16 teaspoons per portion. And most children don’t just have one either.”

“Sugar in combination with caffeine gives you a real big boost – a stimulating effect but that’s followed by a plummet and a drop.”

Most UK supermarkets already uphold a voluntary ban on the sale of energy drinks to under-16s, but children are still able to purchase the drinks from smaller shops, online retailers, and vending machines.

A complete ban for under-16s was previously proposed in 2019 but did not come to fruition.

Caroline Farrell, a nutritionist who has worked with both Warford and Fulham FC, assisting first-team and academy players with their diets, echoed Ms Randell’s warning about energy drinks for children.

“They are really addictive,” she told i. “Unfortunately, I see young adults who consume way too many, and the more they drink the more they want, because after a while the effects of the stimulants, like caffeine, wear off.

“Then people drink more of them to try and get the same effect and become quite addicted to them”.

The nutritionist, who still works with young athletes, added: “I have a lot of people who take them before football training or before a football match. But the truth is, some of them are not actually going to give you an energy boost.

“A lot of them are extremely high in caffeine which might give you a short-term boost but it will be followed by a low in energy.

Ms Farrell added that most energy drinks are not appropriate for sport. “They don’t have the electrolyte sodium in them, and it’s sodium you lose when you sweat,” she said.

“They don’t have the correct electrolyte in them, so they’re not the same as a sports drink, but young people don’t understand, and they drink them like a sports drink.”

Despite her concern for children consuming energy drinks, Ms Randell remained ambivalent over the practicality of a full ban. “The inherent problem with trying to ban anything is that you then make it very, very attractive.

“If you ban something, you make it illicit and cool. Ban them, and that makes them more attractive, potentially.”

Instead of a ban, Ms Randell said it would be better to implement marketing restrictions that prevent brands from targeting their energy drinks at children.

“Just stopping the marketing of these products to children,” she said.

Brands like Prime – fronted by YouTubers KSI and Logan Paul – have become increasingly popular with children, and initially flew off the shelves upon its release.

While Prime doesn’t contain high levels of refined sugar, instead sourcing its sweetness from coconut water and energy-producing amino acid taurine, it still contains a large quantity of caffeine.

The popular energy drink contains 200mg of caffeine per serving – almost three times more than Red Bull, and twice as much as a cup of coffee.

Ms Farrell, however, welcomed the idea of a ban, calling it the “only option in the state they are at the moment, they’re not suitable for children.”

“As a mum myself, I wouldn’t give my children caffeine, and certainly not caffeine in that quantity.

“For a small child that’s going to have a much greater impact on their blood pressure, their heart rate, their sleep, their anxiety, their mood.”

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