Energy drink manufacturers have reduced the amount of sugar in their products in response to the tax on sugar-sweetened drinks introduced by the Government last year, however some brands still contain between 14 and 17 teaspoons of sugar per drink.
The tax on sugar-sweetened drinks was introduced in Ireland on May 1, 2018. It imposes a tax of 30c per litre on sweetened drinks with over 8g of sugar per 100ml, and a tax of 20c per litre on drinks between 5-8g of sugar per 100ml.
Safefood decided to carry out a survey of the amount of sugar and caffeine contained in energy drinks available throughout Ireland. The survey was carried out in April of this year in major supermarkets, discount stores and convenience shops.
The survey found that the average sugar content per serving of energy drinks has fallen by around two level teaspoons of sugar - from 31g in 2015 to 23g in 2019.
However, among the three leading energy drink brands, who have a combined market share of 80%, only one - Lucozade Energy Original - had reduced its sugar content. There was no reduction in sugar by the other two - Red Bull and Monster.
The survey noted that before the introduction of the sugar tax, 74% of energy drinks in the Irish market would have been eligible for taxation, but by 2019, only 41% were eligible for taxation.
However, it also found that while there has been a noticeable reduction in sugar in some products, there has also been an increase in the proportion of drinks being sold in larger serving sizes.
The overall number of energy drinks identified by the survey rose from 39 in 2015 to 42 in 2019, with the number of drinks sold in 500ml servings jumping from eight in 2015 to 16 in 2019. There has been no change in the number of drinks sold in 250ml servings.
"Regular energy drinks are basically sugary drinks with added caffeine and we know that sugary drinks are linked with poor dental health and excess weight," explained Safefood's chief specialist in nutrition, Dr Marian O'Reilly.
She said that while it is encouraging to see a reduction in the sugar content of these products, the caffeine content has increased in some, "with one serving of an energy drink contributing more caffeine than a standard espresso".
Safefood also found that some of the products are heavily marketed on social media.
"In 2019, 38% of energy drink brands included in the 2019 survey had an active social media channel. However, the reach of existing brands like Red Bull and Monster continues to grow with millions of followers over multiple social media channels and major sponsorship deals in sports such as Formula 1, football and various extreme sports," it noted.
It also expressed concern that some energy drinks were being marketed as "natural", with 11% of energy drinks in 2019 containing some reference to natural energy on the label.
"It's a concern that these drinks are cheap, readily available in large containers and are marketed in a way that is appealing to young people. These drinks are not suitable for children and we would encourage those aged over 16 to consider energy drinks as an occasional drink due to the often high sugar and caffeine content," Dr O'Reilly said.
Responding to the findings, the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, said that while it is encouraging to see a reduction in sugar in some products, "it is disappointing that some of these manufacturers have not responded appropriately".
"Many of these products are still high in sugar and I strongly urge retailers and manufacturers to consider further measures to reduce the sugar content of their products.
"I am also very concerned at the trend in increasing container sizes. I call on children, young people and their parents to be aware that these drinks are still unsuitable for consumption by them," he added.
Details of the survey can be viewed here.
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