x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Are 'energy drinks' more than just a jolt to the system?

History is repeating itself. Just as distilled spirits have a much higher alcohol concentration than their fermented predecessors, so too energy drinks massively out-caffeinate tea and coffee.

To sleep or not to sleep? Hesitantly, Mona held the can to her mouth. The momentary indecision passed, she parted her lips and drank. The taste was nondescript yet reassuringly familiar, reminiscent of a childhood cough remedy.

The liquid's active ingredients worked their way into her system, penetrating her blood-brain barrier. Once in the brain, they went straight to work, interfering with Mona's neurochemistry by lowering her adenosine levels and increasing dopamine at specific brain sites.

Within moments Mona's pains dissolved, her heart rate increased, and her breathing became easier. She was "cured". The "energy drink" had fully restored her ability to concentrate and sleep withdrew to the shadows.

In his best-selling book A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage describes the far-reaching influence certain beverages have had on the world. The agricultural roots of civilisation, he argues, are based on a surplus of grain, which also made beer brewing possible. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, beer became a staple food-stuff impacting the culture of the earliest civilisations.

In ancient Greece, wine was celebrated as a social and cognitive lubricant, an essential element in the symposium where thinking and drinking were closely linked.

Arabs gave the world the word "alcohol", along with the distillation technology to concentrate it. This enabled the advent of spirits like brandy, whiskey and rum, each of which shaped a number of societies and fuelled economies. Rum distilled from sugarcane, for example, was integral to the transatlantic slave trade.

Ever-innovative Arabs also introduced the world to coffee, a beverage which changed societies as much as any other. Coffee has been extolled as the libation of sobriety and scientific progress. The first coffee house in western Europe was opened by a Lebanese proprietor in the university city of Oxford in 1650 - academia and caffeine have had an intimate relationship ever since.

Standage ends his history of the world with "globalisation in a bottle", a reference to the ubiquitous cola brands as emblems of cultural homogenisation.

The next big beverage in the human story, in my opinion, will be the hyper-caffeinated energy drinks. Our protagonist Mona is not alone in drowning her fatigue in the nectar of carbonated wakefulness. Increasingly, students use these drinks to facilitate prolonged study.

Similarly, those who work hard often like to play hard too, and you can play even harder when fuelled by energy drinks. Some of the energy drink manufacturers tap into the idea of hedonistic excess by giving their drinks names like Cocaine, Pimp Juice, Blow and, less controversially, Rockstar.

The popularity of these beverages is attested to by global sales data. A recent report by the market research firm Mintel suggests that between 2005 and 2009, energy drink sales rose 136 per cent. In North America, more than one in seven adults are reported to be regular consumers.

Energy drinks vary widely in their content, but the common ingredient is caffeine. In some cases this can be as much as 750 milligrams per drink. When you consider a decent cup of coffee contains about 100 milligrams, this is a pretty massive dose.

History is repeating itself. Just like distilled spirits have a much higher alcohol concentration than their fermented predecessors, so too energy drinks massively out-caffeinate tea and coffee. One problem with this increase in caffeine is that many nations do not require caffeine content to be stipulated on labels.

Another similarity between energy drinks and their predecessors is controversy. Alcoholic beverages have at varying times and places been prohibited, as has coffee. Khair Beg, a governor of Mecca, attempted to ban coffee in 1511, as did King Charles II of England.

The energy drink Cocaine has claimed to "out-energise" rivals by 350 per cent. Such outlandish brands and claims have of course attracted bans in some nations.

However, even less provocatively named energy drinks have been banned based on health concerns. France's Scientific Committee on Human Nutrition found Red Bull contained excess caffeine and expressed concerns about the health effects of some of its other ingredients. This led to a ban on the drink in France, following existing bans in Norway and Denmark.

The sporadic prohibition coupled with widespread consumption confirm that we are about to enter the epoch of the energy drink.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology in the department of health science at Zayed University