CHENNAI: A carbohydrates input of up to 78 g and added sugars (sucrose) amounting to as high as 37 g. No, this isn’t the alarm-causing figures of chocolates, ice-cream or soft drinks (they can be worse, though). All this is in 100 grams of the malted or energy drinks (like Bournvitra, Horlicks, Complan, etc.) that takes a prime spot in your child’s diet. Marketed as an easy means to provide adequate energy for the growing child and as an elixir with a whole array of ‘health’ benefits, these sugar-loaded obesity carriers often fly under the radar of the increasingly watchful parent.
Perhaps, it’s time for a nutritional fact-check; for the consequences of consumption (even when moderated) can last a lifetime, say experts. It all comes down to simple maths, says Meenakshi Bajaj, dietician, Tamil Nadu Government Multi Super Speciality Hospital. “The World Health Organisation’s sugar intake recommendation is 5 per cent of your daily calorie intake; this works out to be 25 grams for an adult of normal body mass index. It was reduced from the earlier recommendation of 10 per cent. One gram of any carbohydrates — even if it is sugar — will give you four calories. Suppose you consume 1,000 calories, in that you should bring down your total energy intake from simple sugars to not more than 100 calories. But this sugar can come from any of your processed food — jam, jelly, ketchup, dessert or these energy drinks. Now each brand of energy drink has different amounts of sugar — 5 g to 20 g per serving (20 g to 30 g). In that, if you’re going to add cane sugar for taste, say a minimum of 5 g, and the child is going to have two cups of the drink a day, you’re already through with your day’s requirement,” she breaks it down.
Preethi Rahul, dietician, says that wrong usage of the products add to the danger we accumulate. “If you look at the recommended dosage, the label says to add one or two scoops in water. But we usually add it to milk and add sugar also. It is the wrong way of consuming it. I wouldn’t entirely blame the food industry for it. As consumers, we should start reading food labels and follow instructions as to how it should be used,” she suggests.
Diabetologist at Kauvery Hospital, Dr K Baraneedharan, also points to unscientific marketing and the attractiveness-quotient of television ads for the increased attention on these products. “What’s shown in the media has a direct impact on kids. They create the impression that after taking these supplements, the brain will develop, immunity and stamina will increase. But the kids will have to do the work,” he says.
Far from this, it comes down to it being an energy drink. While children do need this energy, it is a question of whether we want to give it to them in this form, Preethi elaborates. She offers ragi malt as a healthy alternative, at least for people in Tamil Nadu. Here again, to reap the best benefits, she cautions against any additional flavouring.
Laying out the possible consequences, Dr Baraneedharan too, questions the need for these drinks in children’s diet. “The damage begins from the oral cavity. Increased amount of sugars deposited in the teeth leads to decay. When they keep consuming these supplements regularly, initially they will get more energy. In the long run, they could turn lazy and also resistant to insulin. Whenever there is a high level of glucose in the body, you need a high level of insulin to keep the sugar under control. When you keep increasing the sugar content, you overload the pancreas with insulin. In India, apart from these supplements, we get a carbohydrate-rich diet. All this together leads to childhood obesity and possibly insulin resistance. Then, this slowly leads to non-communicable diseases like hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol level and more in future,” he says. If it is a young girl, it could also lead to polycystic ovary syndrome, adds Meenakshi.
While all this, especially in the face of the rigorous marketing these brands get, may seem bleak, there is plenty being done to counter the narrative, points out Meenakshi. “Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has come up with the campaign ‘Aaj se thoda kam’ (eat right movement). Their recommendation is, if you’re eating one laddoo, eat only half. We cannot tell you to give up laddoos altogether. It would be better if you don’t eat it but if you can’t call it off, eat less. Also, you have to track how much sugar you’re adding to your food,” she explains.
The logic is, if you’re used to having five cups of the drink and adding two teaspoons of sugar to every cup, it will mean that you’re taking 50 grams of sugar. What you can do is reduce your cup size to half; that will automatically bring down the amount of sugars consumed through the drink and the intake of added sugar too, she adds. As suggestions for bettering children’s diet, she advises parents to pick homemade curd with fruits instead of sweetened yogurt, buttermilk that does not have too much salt or sugar, etc. — only these small changes work, rather than blanket restrictions.
Dr Baraneedharan wants sportspersons and film personalities pushing these energy drinks through attractive ads to take a slice of the responsibility and refrain from being the face of these products. With kids seeing them as mentors, they tend to take the stars for their word and follow suit, he notes. Far from it, parents need to be more aware of what these foods have to offer and decide for their children accordingly. And education on this too should come from the school system, he suggests. “I’ve been visiting schools and educating the teachers and parents. We ask them to check their lunchboxes and understand the nutritional value of each item in it. We focus on giving more information on sugars present in the food and its connection to diabetes. We’re educating the adults in the hope that this would change,” he explains.
Agreeing that awareness is poor, Meenakshi suggests that the school should hire dieticians as part of their board. “FSSAI is working very strongly with safe and nutritious food at the school level and workplace. Yet, a lot more push most come from the education system. They might think it is an add-on burden but there is work being done in this area. Indian Dietetic Association, under the banner of Network of Professionals of Food and Nutrition, is going it voluntarily, by spreading awareness of ‘Aaj se thoda kam’. But the momentum needs to pick up a little more stronger to achieve the reduction in non-communicable diseases by 2025 at least. It’s a pandemic that we have to work towards curbing. No individual can do it; if the media, education department, healthcare department work towards this movement, we can work wonders,” she surmises.
While children do need this energy, it is a question of whether we want to give it to them in this form, says dietician Preethi Rahul. She offers ragi malt as a healthy alternative. To reap the best benefits, she cautions against any additional flavouring.