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Drinks That Promise to Give You the Wings to Fly

By Dan Teng'o, opinion, The Nation (Nairobi), 21 July 2001

Many people are turning to them after being stirred by word of mouth, friends, advertisement and funky packaging designs.

Energy drinks have lately become big hits in bars and dance clubs the world over. In Kenya, if you are in the midst of fun-seekers who are under 35, chances are that your partying will be punctuated by sips of an energy drink, one of the many that have become all the rage for non-alcohol drinkers.

"If I'm tired I just grab a can and I'm good to go," says Allan Akoko. "It just makes me feel alert and awake as I while away time with my friends at a party. They tank up their beer and I gulp my Red Bull as the party begins to kick."

At first, energy drinks were consumed by trendy youngsters. Of late, it turns out older people have also discovered and learned to appreciate their taste.

"My girlfriend and I took one can each during a night out and suddenly, we were full of energy. She (girlfriend) is not normally a dancer but we remained on the dance floor the rest of the night," says Joseph, a senior manager and teetotaller in his 40s.

Another manager says he takes a can of a popular energy drink on Saturday morning to see him through the day at work after a night of imbibing alcohol with friends. "It kills the hangover and keeps me alert."

In the bar cabinets, the drinks come on the scene as conspicuous little chaps in cans and potent soft drinks brimming with action and vibes. Their popularity among the young and young at heart is ascribed to the fact that the cans of energy drinks have some enticing, very sexy-sounding claims - that they lift you up, that they give you more energy, that they vitalize body and mind and that they give you the power to fly.

The drinks fall between foods and pharmaceutical products. They are not classified as drugs, so they don't come under the stringent medicine controls, even though they do have a pharmaceutical effect.

Presently, Red Bull ranks as the most famous and widely sold energy drink in Kenya. But there are other names like NRG, Dark Dog, Full Speed and Speedo, some of which have faded out of the Kenyan market.

Despite the recent adverse publicity that Red Bull received after it was associated with deaths in Sweden, its drinkers in Kenya continue to enjoy it, the medical arguments against the drink notwithsta`nding.

It is an Austrian product that, the manufacturers promise, will "give you wings". It is marketed as an "energiser especially for periods or mental and physical exertion - meaning times of increased energy requirements - during sports, at work and in leisure activities".

"Red Bull has a strong 14-year safety record. No one has shown any link between Red Bull and harmful effects. The recent adverse reports in the media could be a campaign by a multinational soft drinks company to hurt the manufacturers of Red Bull due to competition. Attempts by about 100 companies in Europe to produce energy drinks have failed," said Mr Harald Schmidberger, the sole importer of the drink in Kenya under the flagship of Energy Drink Kenya Limited, during a media briefing.

He said it had been certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards and received its Kenyan Ministry of Health approval certificate three years ago when its importation began. Last year, the drink sold 500,000 cans countrywide.

The rejoinder came following reports that at least three healthy people had died after taking it. Two of the victims died after mixing the drink with vodka. The third died after taking several cans after a vigorous gym session. According to The Times of London, a respected British newspaper, one of those who died, a woman in her early thirties, collapsed in a nightclub after just two cans of the drink mixed with vodka.

Unlike in Kenya where Red Bull's red, blue and silver cans are a common sight in night clubs and supermarkets, in Norway, Denmark and France, the drink cannot be sold in stores because it is classified as medicinal for its high caffeine content. It can, however, be sold in pharmacies in those countries.

By and large, energy drinks contain vitamins, amino acids such as taurine, a large dose of sugar and about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee.

Most of them contain citric acid, which upsets the stomach by increasing its acidity. The stomach naturally becomes more acidic during exercise (which is why many sportsmen and sportswomen drink water along with any sports drink, and follow every session with a glass of water before drinking any recovery or post exercise drinks). Citric acid is widely used as a cheap flavouring ingredient and preservative.

They contain approximately 30 grammes of carbohydrates from glucose and pure, crystalline fructose.

The energy drinks also contain a mix of vitamins, minerals, electrolytes and acids. These ingredients help to protect the body from the stresses of exercise, replace key electrolytes lost in sweat, maintain water balance, keep muscles working at peak performance and convert carbohydrates into energy. "Frankly, they're nothing much more than caffeine in a can with a lot of sugar," says Dr Francis Mulaa, a lecturer of Biochemistry at the University of Nairobi. The boost brought about by the energy drinks comes mainly from caffeine. And this, he says, makes energy drinks a bad idea for people whose bodies are allergic to caffaine.

Even though they're labelled "energy drinks," Cardiologist Gerald Yonga says, they should not be consumed in large quantities, especially during exercise. "They have caffeine, and they're too concentrated in sugar. That's going to slow the body's ability to absorb water."

Red Bull's web site, however, recommends the drink as an "ideal energy drink prior to demanding athletic activities, or in a performance drop during a game."

In social clubs, patrons care little about athletic performance. They mix their energy drink with vodka, sometimes downing one drink after another. This worries Dr Yonga, who says large amounts of either caffeine or alcohol are dangerous to the heart because they dilate blood vessels and increase one's chances of getting a stroke.

Dr Yonga contends that people who ingest a lot of caffeine, a stimulant, along with a lot of alcohol, which has a tranquilizing effect, won't realise how drunk they really are. Says he: "There is the likelihood that they may drink more than they would have without the caffeine, because of that alert feeling, and perhaps go out and drive a car." Dr Mulaa maintains that the drinks are necessarily unhealthy, so long as they are consumed without alcohol. He opines that while they might be energizing, they are no more so than anything else with the same amount of caffeine.

Amino vital for cats

On its Web site, the Red Bull company says taurine, a major component of the drink, "acts as a metabolic transmitter and additionally has a detoxifying effect and strengthens cardiac contractility." However, its effects are widely disputed in the scientific community. Experts say the amino acid (taurine) found in the energy drinks is vital for cats for their eyes. It's not essential for human beings.

Another popular energy drink is Prolyte which is said to be scientifically formulated to restore muscle, liver and blood glycogen fast to provide sustained energy during exercise.

The manufacturers say Prolyte provides you with 30 grammes of carbohydrates from glucose and pure, crystalline fructose (simple) and maltodextrin (complex). It contains a full 12 grammes of complex carbohydrates per serving.

Banned by sports groups

Prolyte, which is popular with athletes, also contains 30mg of pure caffeine in each serving. A few other specialty drinks contain caffeine combined with other ingredients like ephedrine (ma haung). Besides being dangerous, ephedrine is banned by many athletic associations, including the IOC (International Olympic Committee).

There is some evidence that ephedrine, especially when combined with caffeine, can be harmful. This may be especially true for lean, athletic males. It can weaken the heart, raise blood pressure, increase body temperature and cause heart attacks. However, there are contrasting studies that show it can be a safe, effective weight loss aid. Regardless, it still isn't legal for use in most sports.

Other energy drinks which made a foray in the Kenyan market few years ago but could not survive the sweeping tides of the local market are Full Speed and Speedo, which disappeared into thin air as fast as they came.

There are also the non-caffeinated versions of energy drinks, such asLucozade Sport, Lucozade Base and Boost.

Dr Nelson Githinji, the Glaxo-SmithKline Group Product Manager for Lucozade and Hedex, says glucose is the key constituent of "our type of energy drinks. We do not include caffeine in the drinks because we are concerned about the nutritional value of our products," says

While Lucozade Sport and Boost are ideal for sportspeople, Lucozade Base is principally manufactured for recuperating patients.

Their major role is to aid the replenishment of the carbohydrate energy stored in the body.

What caffeine does to you

If energy drinks like Lucozade and Boost manage to stimulate the production of energy without caffeine, one may ask, why must some energy drinks contain caffeine? "Because it not only keeps you mentally alert, but it helps to burn fat as fuel and can strengthen muscular contractions. Many energy drinks are formulated to contain 30mg of pure caffeine per 12 ounce serving which is about the same amount of caffeine found in a can of soda," says an Internet source.

It discloses that many athletes avoid drinking soda during exercise because the sugar in sodas is high fructose corn syrup, which damages the liver. Second, soda is very acidic, which is very rough on the stomach.

Many energy drinks have focused on the upscale market. Using aggression as their key ingredient, many have won the hearts of party crowds between 17 and 38 years of age. Each drink takes up the gauntlet and aspires to the status of first energy softdrink for everybody.

"That is where the catch lies," says Dr Yonga. "People should not underestimate the term energy softdrink. In their quest to outdo each other, the manufacturers of the energy drinks couch subtle lies in their advertisements. They hide information about other components of the drinks. They don't tell people all the ingredients of the drinks. They only talk of the legalised ingredients," he says., intimating that in most cases, the energy drinks are laced with bits of alcohol.

Manufacturers of the energy drinks claim that their products are made mild to encourage drinking and to make it easy to digest during intense exercise. Yet some upset the stomach or leave that sugary coating in the mouth.

"These energy drinks are really not good for your health in the long run," says Dr Yonga. He says the best way to increase energy levels is to get more sleep, eat healthier and exercise regularly.

"At the very least, every advertisement of the energy drinks should be accompanied by a rider that they are not fit for people whose bodies cannot stand caffeine," he quips.

Copyright 2001 The Nation. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).