Health concerns over the Red Bull energy drink were fuelled yesterday after Europe’s highest court upheld a French ban on the product.
The fizzy drink has been linked to several deaths and some experts have criticised its high levels of caffeine and other stimulants.
Red Bull is Britain’s best-selling energy drink, with 213 million cans consumed last year. It has been dubbed the ‘clubbers’ drink’, and is often mixed with vodka. The popular adverts claiming that Red Bull ‘gives you wings’, have led to the brand being described as ‘the Porsche of soft drinks’.
It contains caffeine, vitamins, and sugar which, the company claims, kick-starts the body’s metabolism and keeps people alert. But France has refused to authorise its sale, along with other vitamin-fortified foods such as Danone yoghurt and Kellogg’s cereals.
The European Commission (EC) challenged France’s ban after manufacturers complained it was inhibiting imports.
In a ruling yesterday, the European Court of Justice upheld the main part of the EC challenge, ordering France to lift the ban unless it could prove the health risks. But the court said that the French government did have a right to ban Red Bull.
The judges said that a study by the French Scientific Committee on Human Nutrition found that Red Bull contained excessive caffeine. The committee also raised concerns about the drink’s other ingredients – taurine, an amino acid the company claims can ‘kick-start’ the metabolism – and glucuronolactone, a carbohydrate.
The EC’s Scientific Committee on Food conducted a study last year, and found that while caffeine levels in energy drinks were safe, more studies were needed to assess the dangers of taurine and glucuronolactone.
While other toxicology experts had concluded that the caffeine levels in Red Bull are safe, France had a right to ban the drink on the advice of its own experts, the court said.
One can of Red Bull contains 80mg of caffeine – equivalent to one cup of coffee. Three years ago, Ross Cooney, 18, from Ireland, died after he shared four cans of Red Bull and played in a basketball match.
An inquest into his death ruled that he died from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome.
Lyndel Costain, a dietician, said: ‘The problem with caffeine is that the effects can vary, so it is difficult to say what is a safe level. High levels of caffeine can be dangerous for people with high blood pressure or anxiety disorders. Not much is known about taurine and glucuronolactone, but high levels of them could affect the body.’
Red Bull – which sells 1.6 billion cans worldwide – said yesterday that its product was safe.
A spokeswoman said: ‘Red Bull will continue to be sold in 100 countries worldwide.’ She added: ‘No authority in the world has ever discovered or proven an unhealthy effect in or from Red Bull.’
Only France, Denmark and Norway have banned the drink. Britain’s Committee on Toxicity investigated Red Bull in 2001 and found that it was safe, but warned pregnant women against it because high caffeine intake has been linked to a risk of miscarriage.
An EU ruling which comes into force this year means that Red Bull and other energy drinks will have to carry ‘high caffeine content’ warnings. An urban myth that taurine was made from bull’s semen has only added to its popularity.
Ross Cooney, 18, was a healthy basketball player, but died in 2000 just hours after drinking Red Bull.
The student from Limerick, Ireland, died after sharing four cans of the drink with friends before a basketball game.
At his inquest, the coroner called officials from the Austrian-based company to give evidence about their product. They said that no adverse effects had been proven in connection with the drink.
The inquest jury later ruled that the teenager had died as a result of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, but called for an inquiry into high-caffeine energy drinks.
A Brazilian study found that those who mix Red Bull with alcohol may be drunker than they think they are – the energy drink may mask the alcohol effect.
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Written by – Christian Nordqvist