Ultra-high caffeine drinks have long featured in the news, parents and health professionals are concerned that young people have ready access to such drinks from supermarkets and dairies.
Caffeine drinks in New Zealand
How bad are caffeine drinks? Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and the most widely used drug in the world. It is found in the leaves, beans and fruits of over 60 plants worldwide, where it acts as a natural pesticide against certain insects feeding on the plants.
In New Zealand, the most common sources are coffee, tea, cocoa, kola nut extract (as in cola drinks) and the caffeine and guarana ingredients added to energy drinks. Most people can drink these with no ill affects. The problem is the amount of caffeine being put into ultra-high caffeine drinks. Also known as ‘energy shot’ drinks, ultra-high caffeine drinks can contain more than 3,300 milligrams (mg) of caffeine per litre, despite the maximum level allowed for caffeine drinks being 320 mg per litre.
Through a loophole in New Zealand’s laws, the drinks have been reclassified as ‘dietary supplements’. This means they can be legally marketed and sold here without the stringent requirements that have to be met for food or drugs (pharmaceuticals).
Most of the energy shots are labelled as not being suitable for consumption by children. Despite this, there are concerns that they are being sold primarily to adolescents and children.
Effects of large amounts of caffeine
Dr Jim McVeagh, an Auckland GP, says he has dealt with a number of cases of teenagers having psychotic episodes following multiple cans of energy drinks. “This problem will almost certainly get worse with these types of ‘dietary supplements’. Caffeine in large amounts pushes up your blood pressure and reduces endothelial function dramatically, predisposing people to heart attacks. It is not a benign pick-me-up, nor is it a dietary supplement – it is a stimulant drug, pure and simple.”
However, Dr Peter Black, Professor of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Auckland, says that attempts to implicate caffeine as a cause of cancer and heart disease over many years have failed to find a link. “There is, however, evidence linking a high intake of coffee to reduced fertility in women trying to conceive. Excessive intake of caffeine can cause irritability, anxiety and insomnia, and that potentially might be an issue in some individuals with high intake of energy drinks.”
Call for abolition of ‘dietary supplements’ category
Dr John Birkbeck, Adjunct Professor in Child Nutrition at Massey University, disagrees somewhat. “It is time for others to front up on such topics, but a few things need to be said. First, these products are especially dangerous for children. Second, we must remember that people are divided into 2 groups by the rate they metabolise caffeine. Some can metabolise it quickly – I must be one of those because coffee at bedtime does not prevent my sleeping.
“Others are slower, and for them, these products must be especially dangerous. I suspect, in anyone with a pre-existing condition such as overactive thyroid or some heart defect, they could even be lethal. But the issue is really far wider than all this. The category of ‘dietary supplements’ must be abolished [in New Zealand] as the Aussies have.
“A product must be either a food or a drug and dealt with under the relevant legislation. Energy drinks could be foods but their composition would be regulated. These ‘energy shots’ would clearly be drugs and put out of existence by lack of safety documentation. But the ‘dietary supplement’ industry in this country has been fighting this for decades as it is a very lucrative market, which manages to avoid the constraints even on food producers let alone pharmaceuticals. The sooner this grey area is abolished, the better – this could be an excellent argument through which to do that.”
Read about the New Zealand food safety system on the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) website.
Find out more about Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) on their website.
Download this PDF Risk Profile: Caffeine in energy drinks and energy shots from the MPI website.
The Medsafe website provides an overview of the regulation of dietary supplements in New Zealand here.
In early 2018, the major supermarkets in the UK started banning the sale of high-caffeine energy drinks to those under the age of 16, should New Zealand follow suit is discussed in this article.