Energy drinks were the subject of a paper from the European Food Safety Authority late last month

Energy drinks were the subject of a paper from the European Food Safety Authority late last month

The concept of a drink that can give you an instant hit of energy was always going to be a winning formula.

The results speak for themselves: The energy drinks category has seen sales soar in the last decade by more than 250%, according to beverage researchers Canadean. Every consumer around the world now drinks almost 1.5 litres of energy drinks a year.

What is more significant is that these drinks make up less than 2% of world soft drink volumes, but account for nearly 6% of the value of the whole sector.

The good news keeps on coming, with expected global growth for 2014 put at 9%, according to the latest Canadean forecast in February. This year, energy drinks will expand their sales on every continent in what is a spectacular global endorsement.

Not everyone, however, has been cheering from the sidelines, with energy drinks often portrayed as the villain of the soft drink sector. An online search on the dangers of consuming them does not provide reassurance, nor is it recommended for the faint-hearted. Drinkers are at risk from anything from ‘sensation-seeking behaviour’ to type 2 diabetes. One piece suggests that the side-effects of drinking too many energy drinks include "palpitations, high blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, convulsions and, in some cases, even death". It is not surprising, then, that lobbyists and legislators have responded in some markets with age restrictions on purchasing, calls for warnings on labels and even outright bans.

The negative publicity, however, does not seem to have dented the progress of energy drinks, and this can be traced in part to the consumers that are drinking them. There is a considerable bias towards young, adult males who are particularly resilient to bad publicity. In fact, the publicity probably enhances the reputation of the drinks to their audience. You only have to look at some of the extraordinary names of many energy drink brands to gauge who they are aimed at. Dark Dog, Boom Boom, Blue Bastard, Blue Demon, Crazy Wolf, Crazy Tiger, Cult, Full Throttle, Hell Energy, Mad Dog, Rocket Fuel, Zombie Boy; the list goes on. Drinkers in Czech are even able to buy an intriguingly named energy drink called Erektus; this perhaps illustrates perfectly why authorities view energy drinks with suspicion.

The news, then, that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has come to some fairly favourable conclusions will probably have a limited impact on many energy drink users. It is, however, good news for the category, particularly as the paper will help to influence any legislative interference in West Europe, a region that accounts for 17% of all energy drink sales, according to Canadean.

Interestingly, the report from EFSA suggests that a can of Red Bull’s caffeine content is the equivalent of a 6cl espresso and points out that the standard can of Red Bull contains less caffeine than a 20cl cup of filter coffee. These coffee products are, of course, marketed in a less sensational way that does not draw attention to them.

Naturally, there are caveats for pregnant women, but EFSA declares that a daily caffeine intake of up to 400mg does not raise safety concerns for healthy adults. Of course, that does put a cap on how much you can consume, but 400mg does equate to five cans of 25cl energy drinks and even the most hardened enthusiast would struggle to get through that many energy drinks in a day.

Using energy drinks as a mixer has often been the focus of concern for health bodies, and many people’s first exposure to energy drinks is as a mixer with vodka and other alcoholic drinks. This trend was certainly a catalyst for the early development of the category in many countries, and has recently seen a revival with the re-emergence of the ‘Jägerbomb’ adopting Red Bull as the mixer with Jägermeister. EFSA’s findings on the use of energy drinks as a mixer are also far from scathing.

I would expect mixing energy drinks with alcohol is probably likely to make you more prone to "sensation- seeking behaviour", but the authority reports that alcohol consumption up to the standard drink-drive limit in many countries, "would not affect the safety of single doses of caffeine up to 200mg" and that "up to these levels of intake, caffeine is unlikely to mask the subjective perception of alcohol intoxication".

EFSA’s paper may not necessarily encourage people to go out and start using energy drinks but, importantly, it does not tell people not to. Yes, there is a safe limit, but few people will drink anywhere near the five cans daily suggested. You can have too much of a good thing too – if you eat too many carrots you turn orange.

Critically, the EFSA safe standards for caffeine consumption paper will not give any more ammunition to the critics of energy drinks.