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Sweet little lies

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Energy drinks can be dangerous. Scientists have warned that over-consumption can trigger sudden cardiac arrest in young people, while pressure group, Action on Sugar, has urged the government to ban them for children. Yet, there has been little focus on the dangers for men – despite men being one of the prime targets of the savvy drink marketers.


After a seminar on the issue held for members of the British Safety Council working in construction raised concerns, we investigate what are the dangers for workers’ health and safety.

What are energy drinks

The energy drink market is booming. Sales rose in the UK from 454 million litres to an estimated 550 million litres between 2011 and 2014, according to a Mintel report, which predicted the market to grow to 647 million litres by 2019. From brand names like Relentless and Rockstar to Monster Energy’s ‘packs a vicious punch’, macho slogans are seemingly designed to appeal to men. The sheer range of brands on offer and availability of the energy drinks, with supermarkets producing own brands and the price of a can of Red Bull as little as £1, means they are also now widely accessible. Monster Energy, one of the most popular brands seen on construction sites, does not even advertise – relying on the powerful aesthetic of sponsored athletes and sports events to spread the word.

The caffeine culprit

But behind their attractive appearance lurk some dangerous substances. In 2014, a team of researchers from the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that people could potentially die from overdosing on the caffeine in energy drinks: “The health risks associated with energy drink consumption are primarily related to their caffeine content,” they said, listing several cases including that of a man in Australia reported to have suffered cardiac arrest after consuming seven to eight cans of an energy drink while taking part in vigorous physical activity.

Their concerns hint at what we know. Caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, a chemical substance that can even change brain function. In small amounts, it is thought it can be positive, helping to increase alertness, memory and productivity by increasing levels of the brain chemical dopamine. In large amounts, however, effects can be hugely damaging on the mind and body.

Too unlimited?

According to European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) the recommended daily limit of caffeine is 400mg. This is the limit after which overdose symptoms can appear, ranging from palpitations, nausea, vomiting, hypocalcemia, convulsions, to, in rare cases, death, according to the WHO analysis, which appeared in the journal Frontiers in Public Health. As a 500ml Monster can contains 160mg caffeine and one 250ml can of Red Bull contains 80mg of caffeine, energy drinks are under this limit individually and not much stronger than a cup of brewed coffee (around 100mg). But the problems lie in the numbers reportedly consumed per day.

In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority ran a study on consumption data for energy drinks in 16 countries of the European Union. They found that 68% of adolescents (aged 10-18 years) and 30% of adults consumed energy drinks. Although there is no comprehensive data for the construction industry, companies say their workers are drinking far more than these figures might suggest.

Michelle Rice, health and safety coach at residential developer Mount Anvil, says: “From personal observations and tentative studies we’ve done within our own organisation, I think there is a really large part of the workforce drinking them.” She adds: “We’ve had situations where we’ve been made aware of guys drinking up to 15 cans a day; on a minor scale, guys drinking up to five a day.” At Land Securities, head of health and safety group, Clive Johnson, says he recently had energy drinks removed from drinks machines after concerns were raised of one worker’s 15 can a day habit. Paul Johnson, group HSEQT director of Carey Group, says: “Evidenced by the number of empty cans you see on site, this is becoming a big problem in our industry.”

Wired

Stress is a very common side effect of caffeine in energy drinks. Caffeine works by binding receptors in the brain with adenosine, a brain chemical that puts the brake on brain activity. In the constant presence of caffeine, adenosine can no longer turn off the brain. It creates the feeling of alertness, but leads to a crash situation as the brain is robbed of its impulses to rest. Mark Davies, director at workplace resilience, wellbeing and performance consultancy, 7Futures, says: “If your workers are drinking energy drinks all day long, it may be very difficult for them to switch off at night. It becomes increasingly difficult to manage health and wellbeing.”

Ultimately, the stress and the feeling of being permanently ‘switched on’ can lead to problems like insomnia, with the caffeine interfering with the body’s natural sleep processes. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, written by an American research team, found that a caffeine dose similar to that of a large shop-bought coffee appeared to disrupt sleep even when taken six hours before bedtime.

Energy drinks can be both the problem and the solution, therefore, with workers drinking to compensate for poor sleep caused by the drink in the first place. It’s a “vicious circle”, says Michelle at Mount Anvil: “Possibly it’s not one they are aware. Energy drinks don’t give you fuel, they lie to you – they tell you you’ve got more energy than you’ve actually got and that’s a key thing, people think these drinks are giving them energy – they’re not.”

Lows and highs

As well as the lows produced from caffeine, there are the dangers of the highs. Wired: energy drinks, jock identity, masculine norms, and risk taking, is a 2008 paper that surveyed nearly 800 undergraduate students and their consumption of energy drinks. It found a link between the consumption of the drinks and the students’ identification with the risk-taking, ‘hypermasculine’ world the brands promote, which it said may signal an ‘elevated risk’ for health-compromising behaviours.

On construction sites, evidence of risk-taking is more anecdotal. Andy Dean is managing director of Building Site to Boardroom (BS2B), a company that looks at mental health from the psychology and self-help perspective in order to help workers. He recalls how, working previously as an owner of a small construction firm, energy drinks were endemic among workers. “Some of the operatives were coffee and ‘red bullers’, with consumption beginning at 7.30am on site.” The effects were concerning to Andy, who felt they damaged interpersonal relationships and there were signs of unconscious risk-taking. “What I really noticed was the spiking – their focus shifted, they didn’t tend to focus on the job in hand because they were bouncing around the walls.” He adds: “They become volatile – I’ve seen big confrontations because that person wasn’t thinking about the impact of their behaviour on the others.”

Stress and more stress

His observations are not surprising when we consider what is going on in the body. Mark Davies lists the side effects from ‘stress hormones’; cortisol and adrenaline which is produced by caffeine in the drinks: “Emotions and cognitive processes become less effective: risk of volatile moods/behaviour; capacity for coping with pressure and the unexpected is diminished with consequent knock-on effects for work, relationships, energy and the body becomes more susceptible to disease and illness.”

Clive Johnson at Land Securities says the company has a responsibility to look at the ruinous cyclical effects of energy drinks on mental health. He says the stress has a knock-on effect, not just for life in the home but at work too: “It’s not just about the workplace, if you get the health right at work – you’re going to be better with the family on the weekend. You don’t want to go home absolutely shattered on Friday night, not fit for nothing.” A bad weekend can equally “spill over” to work.

Sugar rush

Caffeine in energy drinks is not the only potentially harmful ingredient. According to the NHS, adults should not consume more than 30g of added sugar a day, whether it comes from soft drinks, chocolate or table sugar. However, some brands of energy drink contain up to 20 teaspoons of sugar (78g) per 500ml serving – more than three times the recommended maximum daily sugar intake – according to Action On Sugar’s Energy Drink Survey 2015 report. It concluded that energy drinks put consumers at an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes and said that claims from certain drinks manufacturers that their products are a good source of energy were “nonsense”. “The body generates energy from carbohydrate which can be found in fruits, vegetables, breads, pasta and rice and there is no need whatsoever for added free sugars.”

Real fuel

So what is being done to tackle the issue and what is recommended? Many argue that the first step is to put the energy drinks’ lures of increased performance power in check with proper information.

At Mount Anvil, they are keen to educate workers more on how to properly fuel their bodies as a way to beat energy drinks at their own game.  Michelle Rice says: “We need to be just as clever at advertising as the guys that are selling [energy drinks]. Fight fire with fire...you have to be slick, just as targeted, engaging and imaginative as the ones that are selling people stuff we don’t really want to be sold.”

She believes it’s important to intercept the first energy drink of the day before the cycle of sugar highs and caffeine lows kicks in: “It’s about stopping workers having that first Red Bull and getting them into site and giving them something sustaining so they’re not going to have the cravings for sugar, or caffeine.” Porridge for example, “because it’s a slow burn that keeps them going for longer and on a steady flow in the day”. The company’s canteens provide workers with healthy and sustaining food and also offer messages around good nutrition. Table mats, for example, show how many hours a bowl of porridge will provide fuel for, in an eye-catching way.

Education and awareness is important and it can be done creatively to have impact. At the British Safety Council members’ construction seminar, attendees were asked to rank sugary foodstuffs beside energy drinks for their level of sugar. Many were surprised by the results. Paul Johnson, HSEQT director at Carey Group, said he was “shocked” when it was demonstrated that four cans of an energy drink was equivalent to eating 22 donuts. “It was a great visual way of demonstrating just how bad these drinks are,” he said.

Mark Atkinson, health and safety manager at Clugston, said he is now producing a poster based on the levels of caffeine in the drinks as a way to raise awareness on the sites. At Kier, posters highlight how much sugar is in the most popular fizzy drinks, how to reduce stress levels, and provide tips for a healthy diet, all part of its recent campaign on healthy eating.

Change in mindset

However, others believe that there needs to be a more suggestive approach achieved by framing the message more positively. At BS2B they use mindfulness and self-awareness tools that can help to slowly build a change in mindset. In the context of cracking an energy drinks habit, it means creating positive goals that will stop workers from reaching for another can, says Andy. “For the company to change the attitude to wellbeing, just telling people ‘you’re eating bad food’, doesn’t really land. It’s just something else they feel bad about,” he says.

“How do we encourage people to make a difference? For me, it was choosing a healthier life approach, it is because I can do more…not because [unhealthy food] is bad.” He explains: “Give up drink – why? Because I want to fit my jeans, or kick a ball about the park without being out of breath. It’s about letting them set their goals.”

Caffeine tests?

Other more radical ideas that have emerged include taking the choice away from the worker and making cutting down on energy drinks a condition of work. Mark Atkinson, health and safety manager at Clugston suggested exploring the idea of caffeine screening, much like drug and alcohol screening: “We drug and alcohol-test people, but a worker who went on a stag night in Amsterdam and eats some cake, it will show up in a drug test for weeks to come, he’ll test positive so we ban him from site.

“A guy drinks 15 cans of energy drinks a day, he’s doing it under our nose, in fact we even sell him it in our site canteens, and we don’t blink an eyelid. I know which guy I would rather have working on site.”

His views are not so radical when we consider the drug-like effects on the mind and body and the diminished capacity to perform at work.

Energy drinks are promoted by a powerful marketing machine, and their rise indicates they are fast becoming the construction worker’s Starbucks. However, although they may be just as unhealthy as some of those sugar-laden coffees, they are also cheaper and drunk in more dangerously unhealthy quantities.

Workers need the right information about what they are drinking and to see the facts behind the bold promises of the energy drinks’ slogans. Only then they can make better decisions.

Action on Sugar Energy drinks 2015 survey results here

Energy drink consumption in Europe 2014 report here

To read 7Futures factsheet on Caffeine, a Risky business? click here

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