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For that cool kick
Imaging: M. Iqbal Shaikh

X likes to dance through the night. And what keeps the 28-year-old Delhi professional going is a power drink that is the rage among the young. Mix it with vodka, and the night is hers.

Kavita Babu doesn’t get the same kick when she sees those sleek cans that are meant to help you work all day and party all night. Instead, the medical scientist gets a jolt of apprehension.

A doctor specialising in emergency medicine and medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts, US, Babu cannot fathom why such drinks are there in the market when the long-term effect of many of their ingredients has hardly been studied.

Many imbibers of energy drinks are not aware that their can is full of caffeine — the same stimulant that gives you a kick in the morning in a cup of coffee. The caffeine in an energy drink is supplemented with a wide variety of amino acids, B vitamins and herbal supplements. An energy drink is often touted as a dietary supplement, but experts warn that it is anything but.

Babu, who has carried out a study on this, is particularly concerned about the high caffeine content of these beverages which are a hit with youngsters all over the world, including in India. “They’re present everywhere… but we know so little about the long-term effects of high dose caffeine,” she says.

Some of the adverse side effects of caffeine overload range from headaches and nausea to palpitations and insomnia. Babu’s study appeared in the latest issue of the journal Clinical Pediatric Emergency Medicine and says the American Association of Poison Control Centers received more than 4,600 calls in 2005 with questions on the use of caffeine. Of those, 2,600 involved people younger than 19 years, and 2,345 required treatment in a health facility.

A little more than two decades old, the global energy drinks market is now one of the fastest growing sectors in the world. The combined worldwide revenue from sports and energy drinks is slated to touch $40 billion by 2010. Despite being a relatively new arrival in India, the size of the energy drink market in the country was nearly Rs 500 crore in 2007, and is expected to grow to Rs 1,100 crore by 2011. Red Bull from Austria tops the table with a 70 per cent market share globally, while it is as high as 90 per cent in India. The other brands already in the Indian market include Power horse, Fullpower and effect. Pepsico announced in May that it plans to introduce the Mountain Dew AMP and the SoBe No Fear energy drink brands in India.

What surprises researchers such as Babu is that while a US law says that a 355 ml can of cola cannot contain more than 65 mg caffeine, there is no such regulation for energy drinks. In India, energy drinks do not even figure in the list of beverages that come under the scanner of the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Act, 1954. “It is shocking to see that products like these are coming to the country without sufficient health impact studies,” says a senior official of the Bureau of Indian Standards.

The problem with a power drink is that people look at it as a harmless source of energy. “I never comprehended the concept of an energy drink,” says Anoop Misra, head of the department of diabetes and metabolism at Fortis Group of Hospitals, New Delhi. “If the idea is to get an instant spike in energy levels, I would say Electral or the good-old nimbu pani will be as efficient as any energy drink that is marketed under fancy names,” he says.

Despite repeated e-mail queries and phone calls, Red Bull did not comment on the issue.

Experts warn that too much caffeine is a potent stimulant and can be addictive. A cup of coffee has 60-80 mg of caffeine and a cup of tea has nearly 40 mg. Most energy drink makers claim that the caffeine content in their beverages is only as high as that in a cup of coffee. But Babu thinks such claims are deceptive. “Some of these energy drinks are packaged in significantly higher volumes, and hence the caffeine intake is substantially high,” she observes. Besides, an energy drink has other ingredients, such as guarana, derived from the seeds of a South American plant, which are said to have more caffeine content that normal coffee seeds.

The caffeine that comes from guarana and other similar ingredients are not added to the overall caffeine content listed. “SoBe No Fear contains 100 mg of guarana extract,” says Babu.

But Pepsico spokesman Dick Detwilter says, “Any listing of caffeine on the label of SoBe No Fear would reflect total caffeine, including any that might come from guarana. So there should be no concern that guarana or any other ingredient would add caffeine beyond what we indicate on the label.”

The maximum permitted limit of caffeine, according to the Indian Standards and PFA Act for soft drinks, is 200 mg per litre. “We have recommended that it should be brought down to 145 mg per litre,” says A.S. Bawa, director of Defence Food Research Laboratory, Mysore, who headed a BIS committee to regulate caffeine content in beverages.

A healthy adult should not consume more than 400 mg of caffeine a day. The intake should be substantially lower for pregnant and breast-feeding mothers and children below 12.

“One should understand that caffeine comes to the body from various sources, from the coffee or tea you sip, chocolates you eat and colas and energy drinks,” says V. Sudershan Rao, a scientist at the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.

Physicians are also concerned over the practice of mixing alcohol and energy drinks, which is a fad among youngsters today. “Of late, vodka and Red Bull have become as commonplace an order as ‘rum and Coke’ with the party-hopping younger generation in India,” says Nitin Tiwari, a bartender at a leading hotel in New Delhi.

Babu says it is a deadly mix as it has a combination of stimulants and depressants. The alcohol level in the blood rises, but people don’t feel they are quite drunk, says Babu. “This can lead to a false sense of sobriety, increased alcohol intake and may probably lead to poor decision making about complex tasks like driving.”

X, however, is not worried. As far as she is concerned, she has just got an energy boost.

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