The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has adopted a scientific opinion on two ingredients commonly used in so-called energy drinks. Following a request from the European Commission, EFSA’s Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS) concluded that exposure to taurine and d-glucuronolactone through regular consumption of energy drinks was not of safety concern.
This evaluation follows a risk assessment on these two substances carried out by the EU’s former Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) in 2003. The ANS Panel considered that data which have recently been made available were sufficient to remove outstanding concerns raised by the SCF opinion with regard to possible harmful effects of taurine on the brain and d-glucuronolactone on the kidneys . The Panel also concluded that since exposure was based on data reported by the SCF in 2003, current exposure data on the consumption of energy drinks, in particular of adolescents and young adults, may need to be collected.
John Christian Larsen, the Chair of the ANS Panel, said: “This opinion evaluated the safety of these two ingredients as constituents of energy drinks, rather than energy drinks themselves which contain different combinations of a number of different substances. Looking at the available consumption figures and taking into account new toxicological data, the Panel considered that specific questions previously raised on the safety of these ingredients by the EU’s former Scientific Committee on Food have been resolved.”
Taurine and d-glucuronolactone occur as natural ingredients in food, and are normal human metabolites. However, they are also used at much higher levels in energy drinks. The new data confirmed a No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) of 1,000mg per kilogram of bodyweight per day for both substances.
The Panel concluded that a sufficient margin of safety exists for mean and high-level regular consumers of energy drinks, drinking on average 125ml (0.5 cans) and 350ml (1.4 cans) per person per day respectively; hence, exposure to taurine and d-glucuronolactone at these levels is not a safety concern .
In the opinion, the Panel noted reports of acute health problems, including fatalities, in young people consuming energy drinks either in very high amounts (e.g. a reported case of someone drinking 1,420ml), in combination with physical exercise or more frequently together with alcohol. The panel also noted the SCF conclusion that the co-consumption of alcohol and/or drugs reported in most of these cases makes the interpretation of the reported cases particularly difficult. With regard to some recent reports, the Panel considered it possible that the health problems mentioned could be due to the well-known side effects of high caffeine intake, while the assumption of a causal relationship with taurine intake is lacking scientific evidence.
Based on new data from human studies, the Panel considered that cumulative interactions between taurine and caffeine with regard to diuretic effects (i.e. the loss of water and sodium from the body) were unlikely  . The Panel also agreed with the SCF conclusion that it was unlikely that d-glucuronolactone would have any interaction with caffeine, taurine, alcohol or the effects of exercise.
The No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) was defined by the World Health Organisation in 1994 as being the greatest concentration or amount of a substance, found by observation or experiment, which causes no detectable adverse effect in the target group concerned.
The NOAEL represents 43 times the amount of taurine and 71 times the amount of d-glucuronolactone which would be consumed by a high level regular consumer weighing 60kgs and drinking 1.4 cans of energy drinks per day, assuming a can size of 250ml.
This had been identified by the SCF as the main area for possible interactions between taurine and caffeine, another common ingredient of energy drinks.