From children in Kabul to Taliban chiefs, the sweet, caffeine-heavy drinks are wildly popular, defying fears on nutrition
They are sold outside schools, in hospital lobbies, on street corners and in every supermarket; served at wedding receptions and ministerial meetings, while television adverts and billboards praise their qualities.
Energy drinks have taken over Afghanistan, and the high-caffeine sweet beverages are enjoyed by all ages – including toddlers and pregnant mothers – without much attention being paid to potential health risks.
In a busy Kabul neighbourhood, Salim Wahidi, 22, has dozens of different brands stacked up next to his small roadside stand. The supplies run out fast.
“We sell a couple of hundred each day, but that’s not even much because there are so many vendors like me,” he says, sharing one of the drinks with his 13-year-old cousin, Mustafa, who works with him. “People love energy drinks, it’s often their first choice. Every child drinks them, every adult.”
When the artificially flavoured beverages first hit the Afghan market after the 2001 US-led invasion opened up the country to new products, religious leaders questioned the trend.
“Mullahs came together to discuss the issue. They eventually decided that it was clear that such drinks don’t alter your consciousness. They aren’t alcoholic, so there is no problem,” says Fazal Hussaini, of the ministry of religious and hajj affairs.
As Afghanistan is officially a “dry” country, where drinking alcohol is forbidden, energy drinks dominate parties, weddings, government meetings and even tribal elder gatherings.
Even in remote areas, local Taliban commanders are fans. Huge billboards advertise the positive effects of the beverages – including increased concentration and a lack of tiredness – while stores are packed with dozens of different flavours of the drinks.
Prices ranges from 30 Afghani (30p) for local brand Hit to 130 Afghani for an imported Red Bull.
A 250ml can usually includes 80mg of caffeine, about double that found in a cup of coffee. Ingredients such as taurine, ginseng and Vitamin B are added to further boost the effect. Sugary energy drinks have about 60% more calories and 65% more sugar than normal soft drinks.
The World Health Organization has warned that an increased consumption of energy drinks may pose a danger to public health, especially among young people.
In the UK, the drinks have been banned for those under 16, while compulsory health warnings read “high caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breastfeeding women or persons sensitive to caffeine”.
“Scientific evidence shows that energy drinks are a big challenge to public health,” says Dr Morsal Manati, director of the public nutrition directorate at the health ministry. “In Afghanistan, there is no standardised quality control system to examine and study such drinks and people’s knowledge and awareness of potential health hazards – such as anxiety, sleep deprivation, obesity, stomach aches, an accelerated heart rate or tooth decay – is low.”
She adds: “Consuming energy drinks has become a part of young people’s lifestyle.”
Eight-year-old Emran spends his afternoons playing video games once his classes are out, and loves energy drinks. “They are sweet and delicious,” he says. His parents don’t mind. “It says they give you energy and that’s positive,” his father says. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
The global energy drink market is forecast to reach $61bn (£48bn) by 2021; Manati estimates that Afghanistan’s energy drink habit could make up a billion Afghani (approximately $13m) of that figure.
Afghanistan is traditionally a tea-drinking nation. Its population of 35 million have usually stuck to water and green tea, but many are now taking up the opportunity to buy energy drinks, if they can be afforded.
“Eating habits here have changed since the fall of the Taliban,” says Manati. Her own children excessively consume energy drinks, despite her warnings.
“Reasons for the changes might be that the market and imports opened up, as well as the influence of media and foreign cultures and a lack of nutritional knowledge among the population,” she says, adding that she expects significant nutrition-related health problems in the near future throughout Afghanistan. “Some aren’t aware, others don’t care.”Photographing poverty’s pandemic: ‘Afghans have learned to live with fear’Read more
On a quiet street in a hilly area of Kabul, Ismail Noori, a 65-year-old shop owner, says energy drinks are his biggest business.
“I have several suppliers stocking me up every month,” he says. “I know they aren’t healthy, and they wouldn’t be my choice of drink, but what can I do? I need to make money for my family, so I’m going with the trend. If this is what people like, I will provide it.”
Several companies producing energy drinks in Kabul declined to comment.
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