In the clamour to attract attention in a market dominated by pioneer Red Bull and a handful of other brands, products are being launched with health implications that are raising eyebrows among consumer action groups not to mention regulators and health-oriented non-government organisations. New energy forms The energy sector has expanded beyond beverages into youth-friendly categories like candy bars and chocolate, leading some to question whether such products should be freely available to young people. 'Crack' (candy) and 'Cocaine' (beverage) are just two examples of products taking the promise of consuming foods and beverages for an energy jolt to a degree that has drawn regulator interest and indeed, intervention. Cocaine was pulled up by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year, not for its caffeine content (equivalent of 3.5 cups of coffee per can, which saw it banned in Australia for exceeding permitted caffeine levels there), but because of its provocative narcotic-linked moniker and marketing. In response, it toned down the tongue-in-cheek drug references in its marketing and has returned this year under the same name. While energy drinks have a tradition of being mixed with alcohol in nightclubs and bars, the rise of pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks are also causing concern because of their appeal to young and underage drinkers. The youthful marketing of many of these offerings leaves little doubt as to whom their intended demographic is. Public health Health scares have also begun to crop up. Just this week a school district in Florida said it was considering an energy drink ban after four students were hospitalised after consuming them. "You see something like a 12-year-old drinking one of these, and it's really scary," a district board member said. It joins the US states of Kentucky, Idaho and California in considering energy product control of one form or another. Responsible industry players will also be concerned there may be a potential 'ephedra' on the cards, a situation that has led to calls for increased self-regulation. Ephedra, the herbal supplement, was banned by the FDA in 2004 after its misuse as a weight loss supplement and athletic aid led to a number of heart-related deaths and serious reactions. Australian beverage giant Foster's is one company that has taken matters into its own hands, withdrawing an energy/alcohol premix drink called Cougar Volt amid concerns about the way it was being consumed. "We acknowledge community concern that higher alcohol and added energy drinks may be particularly vulnerable to abuse," said Jamie Odell, Fosters Asia Pacific managing director. Such a move would be welcomed by groups like the Washington DC-based food industry watchdog, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which is in the habit of suing companies for what it perceives as labelling and marketing breaches. Last year CSPI sued Coca-Cola and Nestle for "making fraudulent claims in marketing and labeling" about their 'calorie burning' beverage joint venture, Enviga. The high-caffeine product was held up as an example of why caffeine regulations require tightening, and groups like CSPI have for some time requested, as a starting point, mandatory caffeine labelling and more responsible marketing of such products. The FDA has brought the caffeine issue to the discussion table but as yet no regulatory commitment has been made. However, with studies coming in highlighting the dangers of excessive caffeine consumption, the momentum for a regulatory crack down is growing. At the same time new technologies are allowing caffeine to be used in a wider array of food categories such as baked goods, which may cause as much consternation among consumer groups as it does delight in food formulators. Boom (or bust?) If current trends continue, the energy sector is only going to continue expanding. Market analysts place its value in Europe and the US at more than $10bn and that excludes booming markets in Japan, Thailand and other parts of the Asia-Pacific. As far as functional foods and beverages go, there are few sectors that can rival it. 'Energy' has excelled where many other functional foods categories have found only niche-level success because it has delivered a real benefit to a very real market need - namely, giving an energy boost to fatigued people. It has quickly broached the mainstream, being purchased from teens to octogenarians in markets the world over. But if its excesses are not reigned in, the whole sector may suffer, not to mention, most importantly, public health. Shane Starling is the editor of NutraIngredients.com. He has been writing about the nutrition industry for more than seven years.