Right to Know: How Much Caffeine is in Energy Drinks?May 09, 2014
Energy drinks such as Monster, Red Bull, Rockstar and Full Throttle come in colorful cans with buzz-worthy designs, and constitute one of the fastest growing segments of the beverage market. Sales of $9 billion in 2012 jumped to $12.5 billion in 2012, and were once predicted to hit a whopping $21.5 billion by 2017.
Fortunately, that level of growth is not likely to be realized due to a growing backlash against energy drinks. News reports on death and other dangers of energy drinks have not only warned parents to alert their teenagers but slowed sales to consumers of all ages.
Energy drinks currently represent a mere 3 percent of non alcoholic beverage sales. The hope of near unlimited growth has led manufacturers to encourage users to increase consumption by replacing cups of coffee with energy drinks, to pump up office workers who would otherwise fall prey to an “afternoon slump,” and to encourage weekend warriors to enjoy stay energetic at sports events and other outings. What’s more, the energy drink industry even aspires to cross over into the “meal replacement drink category as the inevitable next step in catering to convenience-minded, time-pressed users.
In brief, energy drinks are being targeted to people of all ages who want extra hits of energy because they sleep little, study long, work hard or party late. Although the drinks typically contain a variety of ingredients such as guarana, taurine, vitamins, sugar and other sweeteners, the energizing actually comes from a whopping dose of caffeine.
With nearly all these monstrous drinks, it’s a case of buyer beware. Labels on the cans generally not only neglect to reveal their caffeine content but fail to provide warnings about caffeine intoxication, which can cause anxiety, mood swings, mania, stomach pain, vomiting, seizures, heart palpitations, arrhythmias, and even death.
In the past five years, at least five people have died after drinking Monster energy drinks, including 14 year old Anais Fournier, who went into cardiac arrest in December 2011 after drinking two 24-ounce Monster drinks with her friends at a mall. In 2012 her mother, Wendy Crossland, lodged a lawsuit against Monster Corporation. “With their bright colors and names like Monster, Rockstar and Full Throttle, these drinks are targeting teenagers with no oversight or accountability,” she says. Her goal is to have the FDA regulate these drinks and ban sales to minors.
Although I am a food freedom rights advocate who does not want the government telling me what I can and cannot eat or drink. I endorse clear, honest labeling. Currently the problem is FDA considers these drinks to be supplements, not sodas, and so does not require caffeine content to be included on the label. I believe consumers have the right to know what is in foods and beverages we may consume. With energy drinks, it’s hard to even guess. According to a 2008 study from Johns Hopkins, the “caffeine content of energy drinks varies over a 10-fold range, with some containing the equivalent of 14 cans of Coca Cola.” Sodas, which fall under FDA food-ruling authority, can contain up to 71 mg of caffeine per 12 oz. In contrast, manufacturers can put as much as they want in energy drinks, with known content ranging anywhere from 160mg to 500 mg of caffeine per serving.
Generally, it takes 5 to 10 grams of caffeine to cause death, but age, weight, medical conditions and/or drug and alcohol use can bring the threshold down. According to the journal Pediatrics, “Children, especially those with cardiovascular, renal, or liver disease, seizures, diabetes, mood and behavioral disorders, or hyperthyroidism or those who take certain medications, may be at higher risk for adverse events from energy drink consumption.” Anais Fournier, the 14 year old who died, suffered from mitral valve collapse, myocardial fibrosis and a connective tissue disease known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, yet was never warned of any special danger by her doctors.
In November 2013 New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman subpoenaed Monster and several other makers of such drinks because of false marketing claims about “healthy, energy promoting” ingredients and failure to reveal that the primary energy promoter is a hefty dose of caffeine. Without this information, he said, consumers are not given the opportunity to make educated decisions.
In April 2012,Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) urged the FDA to investigate these drinks after he obtained reports of several deaths. “Consuming large quantities of caffeine can have serious health consequences, including caffeine toxicity, stroke, anxiety, arrhythmia and in some cases death,” he wrote. “Young people are especially susceptible to suffering adverse effects because energy drinks market to youth, their bodies are not accustomed to caffeine and energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine and stimulating additives that may interact when used in combination.” He also asked the FDA to require manufacturers to provide “scientific evidence that other ingredients frequently found in these drinks such as guarana, taurine and ginseng are “safe for their intended use and when used in combination with other ingredients and caffeine.”
Senator Durbin also noted these companies market their products like beverages with words like “fully refreshing” and “lightly carbonated.”
So far FDA has been dragging its feet. The agency has responded that most energy drinks contain no more caffeine than might be found in a cup coffee and has made idle promises about how it will keep its eye on this industry. In fact, some of the drinks contain far more caffeine than found in coffee, and the agency has an abysmal record of oversight. Indeed, rather than focus on clear abuses in the food products and supplement industries — such as undisclosed caffeine in energy drinks or salmonella-contaminated hydrolyzed protein — FDA spends vast amounts of its resources persecuting small farmers selling raw milk and other fresh produce directly to consumers who have not been harmed and are at low risk for harm.
Unless we want a nanny state, the issue with the Monster drinks isn’t how much caffeine should be allowed so much as honest labeling and the consumer’s right to know. Just as we are entitled to know if genetically modified ingredients are in our foods, we are entitled to crucial information such as caffeine content in drinks. From there, consumers and parents can exercise their freedom to choose what they and their children will eat and drink.
Already parents and school boards have become active. As Joe Stokes, the director of elementary schools in Manatee County, Florida, the first to outlaw the drinks in school said , “We know a significant number of students who have increased energy followed by decreased energy can have agitation. Caffeine affects how the brain works.”
Don’t think these drinks are consumed much by minors? Think again. A 2011 article in Pediatrics, reported adolescents consume 30 to 50 percent of all energy drinks. The researchers also reported 5,448 caffeine overdoses in 2007, with 46 percent occurring to consumers under age 19.
Equally sobering is a U.S. government report that identified a dramatic increase in emergency room visits between 2005 and 2009. The number of energy drink related visits to emergency rooms in 2005 was 1,128. Just a few years later, coinciding with increased sales of these beverages, there were 16,053 visits in 2008 and 13,114 in in 2009. Of these visits, 52 percent were people aged 18 to 25 who had combined energy drinks with alcohol or other recreational, over-the-counter or pharmaceutical drugs.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins report that about 27 percent of college students mix energy drinks and alcohol once a month. In addition to increased likelihood of cardiac arrest or other side effects serious enough for an emergency room visit, there are obvious risks to combining energy drinks with alcohol, including risky behaviors such as violence and drunk driving. What’s more, Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins thinks energy drinks can serve as a “gateway product” to drug abuse.
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Resources used for this blog include:
Malinauskas, BM, Aeby VG et al. A survey of energy drink consumption patterns among college students. Nutrition J, 2007, 6:35. http://www.nutritionj.com/content/6/1/35
Seifert, BS, Schaecter JL, et al. Health effects of energy drinks on children, adolescents and young adults. 2011 Mar;127(3):511-28 http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/3/511.long