It was a story as disconcerting as it was shocking. Last week, a four-year-old boy became the second child this year to be hospitalized after consuming a slushie.
These brightly colored frozen drinks are sold at convenience stores, movie theaters, and fun fairs, and are considered a family favorite candy.
Albie Green, from Warwickshire, reportedly became seriously ill (hallucinating and scratching his face) after drinking a small strawberry-flavored slushy at an after-school bowling party.
It was suggested that his illness was an adverse reaction to glycerol, the artificial sweetener used in drinks that helps prevent them from freezing.
Although Albie recovered, many parents have understandably wondered if their children are at risk.
Now, The Mail can reveal that scientists are exploring an intriguing theory – that some children carry a genetic mutation that makes glycerol toxic to them.
We have learned that a major supplier of slushies, the British company Nichols, which produces two of the most popular brands, Slush Puppie and Starlush, has removed the sweetener from its products for the safety of children.
Beth Green faced a parent’s worst nightmare when her four-year-old son Albie became unresponsive after drinking a small strawberry-flavored slushie.
However, glycerol is still present in the majority of slushies available on the British high street and is used in a wide variety of sweets and cereal bars.
Experts are now calling on local health authorities to warn parents about the dangers of slushies, which contain a large amount of glycerol, to avoid further hospitalizations and even possible deaths.
In addition to glycerol, or E422, slushes also typically include citric acid used as a preservative, artificial fruit flavorings, food coloring, salt, and water.
But experts agree that glycerol is the main culprit in two recent cases of children falling ill, and last year the Government’s Food Standards Agency advised retailers not to sell slushies to children under four or offer promotions. Free recharge for children under 10 years old.
It came after two previous cases of children in Scotland being hospitalized after drinking slushies, in 2021 and 2022.
So how worried should parents be?
Beth, 24, from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, feared Albie would die unconscious an hour after drinking the ice cold drink.
In addition to its use as a sugar substitute, glycerol is used in medical treatments, to help combat glaucoma, an eye disease, and relieve constipation.
Experts believe that the glycerol present in foods and drinks is essentially harmless to adults.
Jaffa Cakes, Angel Slices and Cherry Bakewells contain small amounts of glycerol, also listed in the ingredients as glycerin, to ensure the outside of these treats remains moist and soft.
Cereal bars like Nature Valley and Alpen, which are often promoted as a natural alternative to sweets, also contain glycerol for the same purpose.
Most of these foods appear to contain very small traces of glycerol, but companies are not required to list the amount that appears in their products.
However, the additive has become more common in drinks since 2018, when the Government introduced the sugar tax on soft drinks.
It is estimated that the tax has saved thousands of children from having teeth extracted, as sugar is one of the main causes of cavities in children.
However, the current concentration of glycerol in soft drinks such as slushies may be dangerous for some younger children.
Last month, three-year-old Angus Anderson was taken to hospital when he unexpectedly collapsed 30 minutes after drinking a raspberry-flavored slushy purchased from a local store.
His mother, Victoria, 29, from Inverclyde, Scotland, described how Angus’s eyes rolled back in his head and his body went “cold”.
Angus was the third child in Scotland to be hospitalized after drinking a slushie, a drink that appears to be particularly popular.
In 2022, supermarket SPAR Scotland announced a partnership with frozen dessert brand Calippo to install glycerol-containing slushie machines in its 320 stores nationwide.
Mrs Anderson, who has since called for a ban on slushies, was told by doctors at Glasgow Children’s Hospital that her son had suffered from glycerol toxicity, where excessive consumption of glycerol can cause headaches, nausea and loss. of knowledge.
However, experts debate why this condition occurs.
In August 2023, the Food Standards Agency said that in rare circumstances, slushies can be dangerous to children under four years of age. Just a 350 ml drink could put them over the safe threshold
One argument is that glycerol leaves children dehydrated and lowers blood sugar.
“Glycerol is very effective at absorbing excess water in the body, which is why it is used to treat glaucoma, which is caused by fluid buildup in the eye,” says Professor James Caulson, a toxicology expert at the University from Cardiff.
«This water is then expelled from the body along with the glycerol. However, sometimes glycerol can also absorb a large amount of sugar from the bloodstream during this process.
“That sudden loss of water can cause headaches, and the loss of sugar can have a significant effect on the body.”
Professor Caulson says children who consume a lot of glycerol can suffer hypoglycaemia, a low blood sugar condition usually associated with diabetes that causes tremors, dizziness and even seizures.
He added: “So it’s not surprising that young children can end up sick from consuming too much glycerol.”
Worryingly, experts also say that slushies can vary significantly in their glycerol content depending on where they are sold.
According to the Food Standards Agency, most slushes contain around 16 grams (or around four teaspoons) of glycerol.
However, there is no maximum amount of glycerol that manufacturers must legally comply with. Most brands also do not indicate how much glycerol is in each slushie.
“These products can vary greatly in the amount of glycerol they contain,” says Professor Caulson.
“There have been reports in the past of factory errors that have led to similar products containing much more glycerol than expected, which has landed children in the hospital.”
But other experts say that this theory does not explain why only some children have become seriously ill from products that thousands of young people consume every day.
“Many children drink slushies, but these horrible side effects appear to be quite rare,” says Professor Alan Boobis, a toxicology expert at Imperial College London and a government adviser.
Instead, Professor Boobis argues that children who have suffered severe reactions after drinking slushies may have a rare genetic disorder that means their bodies cannot process glycerol.
For example, some children are born with a condition called fructose-1,6-bisphosphatase deficiency, which means they cannot make enough of a certain enzyme that the body uses to break down glycerol into glucose (or sugar).
This rare condition can occur at any time in life and can cause a variety of symptoms depending on its severity, including drowsiness, hypoglycemia, and seizures.
Many people may never realize they have the problem.
Professor Boobis believes that a young child with this condition could become seriously ill if they consumed a large portion of glycerol.
“In this situation, consuming a lot of glycerol could overwhelm the body and cause a health crisis,” he says.
“As the body cannot process glycerol, this could block the production of all glucose in the body and the child would experience severe hypoglycemia.”
Professor Boobis emphasizes that his assessment is currently just a theory and wants further research to be carried out to see if it explains the rise in sleet-related hospitalisations, particularly in Scotland.
“It is possible that all those affected share the same genes or are related in some way,” he says.
If you are right, given the rarity of this genetic disorder, it is unlikely that there will be a significant increase in reports of children suffering severe reactions to slushies.
However, he warns that most children with this condition would go undiagnosed, meaning there is no way for parents to know whether their children are at risk or not.
“Banning slushies would be an extreme measure because it would deprive thousands of people of something that, for them, is safe and enjoyable, to protect a small group of children who are at risk,” says Professor Boobis.
‘However, it should be the responsibility of local health authorities to warn parents about the risks of the drinks.
“If (the adverse reactions) are caused by a genetic disorder, then you are unlikely to know your child is at risk until they become ill.”