Battle lines are being drawn about young people’s access to energy drinks.
Wairarapa fitness coach Allan French is horrified at the number of pupils he sees leaving supermarkets at 8am with 500ml cans of energy drinks.
Dietitian Jan Hale says the drinks can do young people serious harm, and least one secondary school has removed them from its canteen.
But manufacturers say any age restriction on the purchasing the drinks would be responding to a problem that doesn’t exist.
French, a coach for CrossFit Manaia, was at a supermarket this week with his son buying healthy lunchbox items and was shocked to see pupils, some as young as 12, weren’t restricted from purchasing energy drinks.
“We’ve known for a long time these drinks have high caffeine and high sugar, but I’ve always assumed there was an age restriction on them,” he said.
“It just looks wrong.”
He discovered that while supermarkets in the UK had imposed a voluntary age restriction of 16 on buying the drinks, no such restriction exist in New Zealand.
He said the education systems in place teaching kids to make healthy choices weren’t enough when companies spent millions marketing their products towards kids.
“Give any kid $5 in a supermarket and they’re going to go for the brightly-coloured packaging and high sugar content.”
The impact on school performance was obvious, he said.
“You can never expect them to learn anything – they’re jacked up on sugar, never mind the caffeine, and we expect them to apply themselves.”
He compared it with the age and branding restrictions enforced on cigarettes despite adults being well-informed on the adverse impact of smoking on our health.
“They’re not going to have blank labels on energy drinks like they do with cigarettes, but can we have the leading supermarket owners control who’s buying the products?
“How can we expect 12-year-olds to make the right decision when left to their own devices?”
But Stephen Jones from the New Zealand Beverage Council said putting an age restriction on energy drinks would be a heavy-handed regulatory response to a problem that does not exist.
“New Zealand already has some of the strongest energy drink regulations in the world and the evidence shows these are working well.
“Independent research from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand shows energy drinks contribute less than three per cent of the overall caffeine intake for New Zealand children aged from nine to 15.
“We do recognise that young people should not consume large amounts of caffeine and sugar which is why New Zealand Beverage Council members do not market to those under 16 and do not sell their products to schools.”
Registered dietitian Jan Hale is concerned stimulants such as guarana which were added to energy drinks presented potential health risks such as irritability and anxiety which affected pupils’ general health and ability to learn.
“Kids shouldn’t be drinking them at all,” she said.
“They’re packed with sugar and caffeine – there’s no nutrition, or vitamins and minerals which is what they need.”
She said the “empty calories” contained in the drinks would create poor dietary habits and predispose teenagers to weight gain.
“They should be sticking with water and milk,” she said.
Makoura College principal Paul Green said his school had removed energy and high-sugar drinks from the school canteen and now stocked mainly water and low-sugar juice drinks.
“This was a decision that came from our student council,” he said.
“I think there’s sufficient compelling evidence out there about the problematic impact of over-sweetened or caffeinated drinks on the mind and body.
“Part of our job is to talk with our young people about health and well-being and how it can be enhanced or impaired by individual choices.”
Facts about energy drinks
The Health Ministry’s 2008/9 national survey of children and young people’s physical activity and dietary behaviours in New Zealand showed 30 per cent of children aged from 10 to 14 consumed energy drinks.
*Seven per cent of those children consumed the drinks once or twice a week.
57 per cent of children aged from 15 to 19 consumed energy drinks, with 20 per cent of them consuming them up to twice a week.
A 600ml energy drink contains around 15 teaspoons of sugar, more than double the recommended daily intake recommended by the World Health Organisation.
26 per cent of a child’s sugar consumption in New Zealand comes from beverages.
Energy drinks contain between 75-240mg of caffeine per unit.
The Health Ministry’s Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Children and Young People estimates 70 per cent of children [5-12 years] and 40 per cent of young people [13-18 years] would exceed an adverse effect level of caffeine after one energy drink.