Research suggesting that caffeine-rich energy drinks could raise blood pressure and increase the risk of heart damage has once again put the debate over the safety of these drinks in the spotlight. Meanwhile, the number of 'all-natural' energy drinks on the market is proliferating. Annette Farr wonders whether it may be time for 'traditional' energy drinks, notably market leader Red Bull, to wake up and smell the caffeine.

Recent research suggesting that energy drinks which contain high levels of caffeine and the amino acid, taurine, could raise blood pressure and increase the risk of heart damage has once again sparked concern over the safety of such drinks.

In the US, a study carried out at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit revealed that participants' heart rates and systolic blood pressure rose after consuming two cans of energy drinks over a seven-day period. The 15 volunteers, average age 26, had two caffeine-free days before embarking on the week's trial. Dr James Kalus, who headed the research, said that although the increases were not sufficient to make the participants feel unwell, the outcome might be less benign for people on medication to control their blood pressure or those suffering from cardiovascular disease.

At the University of Adelaide in South Australia, Scott Willoughby and his team set out to test the hypothesis that Red Bull alters platelet and endothelial function in young healthy adults. Results showed that drinking one 250ml sugar-free can increased the 'stickiness' of the blood and raised the risk of blood clots forming. Willoughby is reported to have said, "People who already have existing cardiovascular disease may want to talk to their physician before they drink Red Bull in future."

Red Bull is already banned in Norway, Uruguay, Denmark and Iceland and the European Court of Justice has upheld a French ban as well. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is to review the use of energy drink ingredients and the German Federal Risk Institute has published a 19-page study raising concerns over the safety of high energy drinks for certain sectors of the population. 

The pioneer of the energy drinks category and market leader, Red Bull, is currently sold in 143 countries; the company says it can produce its own scientific evidence showing that the drink poses no health risks. 

Despite current concerns, analysts believe the energy drinks market continues to offer significant growth potential. Datamonitor's Business Insights expects the European market to grow at a CAGR of 4.5% to reach US$5bn by 2011, with the Italian market showing the fastest rate of growth at 10%, followed by Sweden at 7%. In the US, both Goldman Sachs and Mintel have predicted that, from $5.4bn in 2007, the energy drinks market will grow to $10bn by 2010. 

Happily, heart health concerns have coincided with the appearance of a new generation of natural energy drinks which replace caffeine and taurine with natural ingredients such as oats, ginseng and superberries (acai and goji). In Kuwait, for example, Al Sayer Soft Drinks has launched Magic Natural Energy Drink to markets throughout the Middle East. Managing director Mohammed Nasser Al Sayer says because "it uses all natural ingredients to provide energy, it also appeals to those interested in health and fitness".
  
There is fusion too. In the UK, Danone Water has introduced Volvic Revive energy drink, a flavoured water which contains stimulating plant extracts such as ginseng and guarana. And Ocean Spray in the US uses cranberry juice as the basis for its new Cranergy drink which the company says is "devoted to re-energising busy Americans with a source of energy they can feel good about, providing a natural lift with an even-energy feel".

'All natural' are the buzz words in soft drinks and demand is growing. Indeed, Red Bull has itself recently jumped on this bandwagon with the launch of its Simple Cola. Datamonitor's Productscan monitoring service shows that of all sports and energy food and drinks launched globally in 2007, 7% claimed to be natural and 12% claimed to be high in vitamins. 

Perhaps now is the time for a rethink and revision of ingredient usage by companies producing 'traditional' energy drinks. A new wave of manufacturers is producing natural energy-enhancing drinks targeting the health-conscious consumer. Cardiovascular concerns will not go away, and this all-natural movement will continue to grow in importance. If Red Bull doesn't address such health issues there's a real risk its famous wings will be clipped.