"It's time we stopped using both terms interchangeably"

'Sports drinks' versus 'energy drinks': The two must be differentiated, argues ESSNA

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

iStock / mearman
iStock / mearman

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It is vital that sports drinks designed to enhance the performance of athletes are clearly differentiated from highly caffeinated energy drinks that are not, says the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA).

The calls come after recent hearings by the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee’s oral evidence session on the health effects of energy drinks on children and young people – in which there seemed to be confusion as to the difference between sports drinks and energy drinks.

ESSNA, the sports nutrition industry’s representative trade association across Europe, says it wants to correct the common misconception around the issue – noting that in general, energy drinks are highly caffeinated and are not designed or marketed towards athletes, while sports drinks that are designed and marketed towards athletes generally lack caffeine or contain more modest levels.

Highly caffeinated energy drinks have been linked to a raft of potential health issues in children and adolescents - including a link to higher alcohol consumption - resulting in a number of governments and campaign groups focusing on the issue. For example, in 2015 Danish officials warned​ that energy drinks are not for children, while a 2016 report by Action on Sugar called for a ban on sales of energy drinks to those under 16​.

With some energy drinks containing more caffeine that a cup of coffee, there are serious concerns in many quarters that the high consumption of such drinks by young people may be causing serious health issues. 

Indeed, speaking before the UK's Science and Technology committee on the issue recently UK Public Health Minister Steve Brine said some children are drinking more caffeine than if they were drinking coffee. According to multiple media reports, the UK Minister used the session to call for a ban on consumption of such highly caffeinated energy drinks in children.

An important differentiation: Caffeine is key

“It’s important to first and foremostly remember that the majority of sports drinks (by sales volume) do not contain caffeine. Those that do will contain 200mg or less, a dosage level found to be safe by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA),” ​commented Dr Adam Carey, chair of ESSNA.

When caffeine is used in sports products, it is targeted at healthy, physically active adults, and carefully dosed and presented for use during endurance exercise – the benefits of which have been validated by EFSA,” ​he said.

Carey noted that there is growing evidence that caffeine may be beneficial in other areas too, reiterating that where caffeine is found in sports drinks it is at levels that are backed by evidence of benefit and safety data.

“Similarly, sports drinks will usually have a specific level of carbohydrate content, which is lower than many energy drinks or other soft drinks, and benefits of which have also been recognized by EFSA in the context of physical activity,”​ he added.

Clear difference

According to ESSNA, unlike energy drinks, sports nutrition products that contain caffeine and carbohydrates are designed and used by consumers for activities which increase the body’s nutritional and physiological needs.

“They are designed to be used specifically before, during and/or after exercise and are typically used to replace electrolytes and macronutrients,” ​said Carey. “They are certainly not used to replace sleep or a healthy lifestyle, which is the main issue of concern with energy drinks; that consumers use them whenever they feel they need an ‘energy’ effect.”

“It is crucial that a clear distinction is made between the two; sports drinks are entirely different from caffeinated energy drinks in composition, use and marketing, and it’s time we stopped using both terms interchangeably”

The ESSNA chair added that when it comes to marketing of sports drinks, it is targeted at people engaged in physical activity “and is categorically not directed towards adolescents and children”

“High energy intake is necessary for sportspeople – the European Commission has long since recognised that sportspeople have specific nutritional needs that must be accounted for - but our industry is clear in that it is discouraged for others,” ​he said.

“The marketing of sports drinks is clear in explaining the right conditions for product consumption.”

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