Dec 2 2012

The defeat of California’s soda tax initiatives: lessons learned

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the aftermath of the defeat of two California soda tax ballot initiatives.

Q: As one who campaigned for the soda tax in Richmond, I’m so discouraged by the millions spent by the soda industry to defeat it there and in El Monte (Los Angeles County). I don’t see how anyone without that kind of money can do anything to reverse obesity and diabetes.

A: Patience. These things take time.

Losing the soda tax campaigns taught health advocates some important lessons, not least that money buys votes. But it also taught that appeals to voter concerns about higher prices, job losses and personal autonomy are more effective than appeals based solely on health considerations.

Nobody likes taxes, and soda taxes are regressive, meaning that they impose a greater burden on the poor. Although the poor drink more sodas and have higher rates of obesity, and are likely to derive the most benefit from drinking less soda, taxes are still a hard sell.

Because dietary choices seem so personal, the influence of the food marketing environment on personal choices is not intuitively obvious. Everyone “knows” that larger food portions have more calories, but that doesn’t stop anyone from eating more calories when confronted with supersize foods or drinks.

The public health route

That’s why public health approaches work better than just telling people to eat less or eat better. The most effective measures change the environment of food choice by encouraging better options with price subsidies or portion-size caps and discouraging unhealthier choices, which is where taxes, bans on toys, and restrictions on marketing come in.

Such measures aim to make healthy choices the default. Most people are happy to live with the default option.

Food companies want their products to be the default. They will always oppose measures that might reduce sales, and they have no lack of resources to do so.

How might public health advocates counter such opposition?

Community approach

The Richmond example suggests the need for public health approaches that are community-based. This means going into communities and asking residents how they view the causes and consequences of their own health problems, and what they think should be done to fix those problems.

Communities set the goals. Advocates help communities achieve them.

This approach is fine in theory, but difficult in practice. Nobody makes food choices in a vacuum. Soda and fast food companies market their products to low-income and minority groups, and make sure their products are inexpensive, readily available and ubiquitously advertised.

To gain traction, food and beverage companies support the activities of community groups, sponsor playgrounds, and place their brand logos on everything they can. My favorite recent example is Coca-Cola’s $3 million gift to Chicago to fund an educational campaign to counter obesity and diabetes (no, I did not make this up).

Community-based campaigns not only can focus on the health consequences of poor diets but also can demonstrate to residents just how food companies put corporate health above public health and engage low-income communities in achieving corporate goals.

Teaching how the food marketing environment works should stimulate plenty of questions about why healthier foods aren’t more widely available in communities – and at affordable prices. It should raise questions about why school lunches aren’t better, and why soda advertising pervades athletic facilities. It should get people thinking about what food and beverage companies are actually doing in low-income communities.

Community-based public health should encourage residents to want to change their food environment.

It should get them thinking about wanting stores to provide healthier foods. Or they might want a farmers’ market, community gardens, better school food, and cooking lessons for their kids.

A method that works

These things really can help change eating behavior. The American Heart Association recently published a massive review – with rankings – of environmental interventions aimed at improving personal diets, physical activity levels, and smoking habits (See Circulation 2012; 126:1514-1563).

The review cites evidence for strategies to improve diets such as media campaigns, price subsidies, school meals and gardens, and restrictions on marketing, as well as taxes as portion caps. Some of these interventions are expensive, but others are not.

A review like this gives advocates plenty to work with.

Soda tax initiatives will not be going away. Neither will other such measures. Community leaders across the country will be continuing to introduce them as a means to reduce health care costs and to generate needed revenue for health-promoting activities.

It’s worth starting now to engage communities in efforts to improve their own health. Next time, engaged communities may be ready to vote for health over corporate interests.

Grassroots efforts take time. It’s too soon to be discouraged.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com. 

Nov 30 2012

Do artificial sweeteners make rats fat?

Artificial sweeteners are a terrific example of why correlation does not necessarily mean causation (see previous post).

Their use has increased in parallel—is highly correlated—with rising rates of obesity.  But could artificial sweeteners cause obesity?

Unlikely as that idea may seem, Brazilian researchers thought  it was worth careful investigation.

They did a preliminary study of sweeteners and weight gain in rats.

They report: although total calorie intake was similar in all rats, the rats fed artificial sweeteners gained more weight than those fed sucrose (table sugar).

The investigators fed the rats yogurt containing either sucrose, aspartame, or saccharin along with unlimited amounts of rat chow.

The rats must not have liked the taste of the artificial sweeteners because they ate more of the sucrose-containing yogurt than the kind with artificial sweeteners. They compensated for less yogurt by eating more rat chow.

Although saccharin and aspartame promoted relatively fewer calories from yogurt intake when compared to sucrose, increases in calories from chow intake effectively compensated for decreases in calories from yogurt, in such a way that there was a similar total caloric intake among all groups after the 12-week period of the experiment.

As they put it, “Possible explanations for weight-gain in saccharin and aspartame groups without increasing energy intake are still widely speculative.”  They suggest that artificial sweeteners might induce:

  • Reduced energy expenditure.
  • Excessive insulin secretion.
  • Increased fluid intake and retention.

What are we to make of this?

This is a small, preliminary study using only 10 rats in each of the three groups.

The differences in calorie intake were small and small calorie differences are difficult to measure.

Bottom line: this is an interesting result that needs to be repeated with greater numbers of rats and even more careful calorie measurements.

Reference: Fernanda de Matos Feijó et al.  Saccharin and aspartame, compared with sucrose, induce greater weight gain in adult Wistar rats, at similar total caloric intake levels.  Appetite 2012; 60:203-207. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2012.10.009

 

 

 

Nov 28 2012

The Danish fat tax: reflections on its demise.

My latest publication is a commentary on the reversal of the Danish fat tax in New Scientist, November 26:

Fighting the flab means fighting makers of fatty foods

A YEAR ago in these pages, I congratulated the Danish government on its revolutionary experiment. It had just implemented a world-first fiscal and public health measure – a tax on food products containing more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat.

This experiment has now been dropped. Under intense pressure from the food industry in an already weak economy, the Danish government has repealed the fat tax and abandoned an impending tax on sugars.

Nobody likes taxes, and the fat tax was especially unpopular among Danish consumers, who resented having to pay more for butter, dairy products and meats – foods naturally high in fat.

But the real reason for the repeal was to appease business interests. The ministry of taxation’s rationale was that the levy on fatty foods raised the costs of doing business, put Danish jobs at risk and drove customers to buy food in Sweden and Germany.

In June this year, a coalition of Danish food businesses organised a national repeal-the-tax campaign. The coalition said that fat and sugar taxes would cause the loss of 1300 jobs, generate high administrative costs and increase cross-border shopping – precisely the arguments cited by the government for its U-turn.

We can now ask the obvious questions. Did the tax achieve its aims? Was it good public policy? What should governments be doing to reduce dietary risk factors for obesity?

The purpose of food taxes is to reduce sales of the products concerned. In bringing in its fat tax, the Danish government also wanted to raise revenue, reduce costs associated with obesity-related diseases, and increase health and longevity. A year is hardly time to assess the impact on health, but the tax did bring in $216 million. Danes will now face higher income taxes to make up for the loss of the fat tax.

Business groups insist that the tax had no effect on the amount of fat that Danes ate, although they chose cheaper foods. In contrast, economists at the University of Copenhagen say Danish fat consumption fell by 10 to 20 per cent in the first three months after the tax went into effect. But it is not possible to know whether it fell, and cross-border shopping rose, because of the tax or because of the slump that hit the Danish economy.

A recent analysis in the BMJ suggests that 20 per cent is the minimum tax rate on food to produce a measurable improvement in public health. The price of Danish foods hit by the tax increased by up to 9 per cent, enough to cause a political firestorm but not to make much of a difference to health.

Is a saturated-fat tax good public policy? A tax on sugary drinks would be a better idea. To see why, recall that obesity is the result of an excess intake of calories over what we burn. Surplus calories, whether from carbohydrate, protein or fat, are stored as body fat. All food fats are a mix of unsaturated and saturated fatty acids; all provide the same number of calories per unit weight.

Saturated fats raise the risk of coronary heart disease, although not by much. Trans fats, banned in Denmark since 2003, are a greater risk factor. Because the different saturated fatty acids vary in their risk, imposing a single tax on them as if they are indistinguishable is difficult to support scientifically.

For these reasons, anti-obesity tax measures in other countries have tended to avoid targeting broad nutrient groups. Instead, they focus on processed foods, fast food or sugary drinks – all major sources of calories. Taxing them seems like a more promising strategy.

What else should governments be doing? That they have a role in addressing the health problems caused by obesity is beyond debate, not least because they bear much of the cost of dealing with such problems. In the US, economists estimate the cost of obesity-related healthcare and lost productivity at between $147 billion and $190 billion a year. The need to act is urgent. But how?

One lesson from Denmark is that small countries with open borders cannot raise the prices of food or anything else unless neighbouring countries also do so. But the greater lesson is that any attempt to encourage people to eat less will encounter fierce food-industry opposition. Eating less is bad for business.

In the US, state and city efforts to tax sugary drinks have met with overwhelming opposition from soft-drink companies. They have successfully spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying legislators and convincing the public that such measures deprive voters of their “right to choose” or, as in Denmark, can damage the economy.

What’s more, the poor cannot be expected to support measures that increase food costs, even though obesity-related problems are much more common among low-income groups.

If governments really want to reduce the costs of obesity-related chronic diseases, they will have to address the problem at its source: the production and marketing of unhealthy food products.

A review by the American Heart Association cites increasing evidence for the benefits of anti-obesity interventions: food taxes, subsidising healthy foods, media campaigns to promote exercise and good diet, restrictions on portion sizes, and restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods and their sale in schools.

Governments must decide whether they want to bear the political consequences of putting health before business interests. The Danish government cast a clear vote for business.

At some point, governments will need to find ways to make food firms responsible for the health problems their products cause. When they do, we are likely to see immediate improvements in food quality and health. Let’s hope this happens soon.

Marion Nestle is the author of Food Politics and What to Eat and is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University

Nov 27 2012

HFCS v. Diabetes: Correlation does not mean causation.

The latest study on the evils of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) so annoys the Corn Refiners Association that it broke the study’s embargo.

Reporters were not supposed to write about the study until today, but the Corn Refiners issued a press release yesterday: “Caution: New Study Alleging HFCS-Diabetes Link is Flawed and Misleading.”

The New York Times quickly posted its own pre-embargo account.

Why the fuss?  The study reports that countries with the highest levels of HFCS in their food supplies also have a 20% higher prevalence of diabetes in their populations.  This is a correlation between HFCS and diabetes.  It does not mean that HFCS causes diabetes—an important distinction.

But the authors’ press release (sent to me in an e-mail message) makes it sound like causation.  They say (also see Dr. Goran’s comments added to this post below):

HFCS appears to pose a serious public health problem on a global scale,” said principal study author Michael I. Goran…The study adds to a growing body of scientific literature that indicates HFCS consumption may result in negative health consequences distinct from and more deleterious than natural sugar.

This conclusion is based on their observations that the amounts of other sugars in the food supplies of countries with high and low HFCS are about the same.  But HFCS is a form of sugars that adds to total sugar availability.

The authors obtained information about diabetes and obesity prevalence and HFCS and other dietary factors in the food supply from existing sources of data, all of them questionable.   The data do not distinguish between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, for example, and the two different sources of data on diabetes prevalence give different results.

Inconsistencies abound.  For example, Mexico has more diabetes than does the U.S., but rather low HFCS availability (Mexicans prefer sucrose in their sodas).  Some countries with high diabetes rates report no HFCS availability at all.

As with all correlational studies, something else could be going on that causes HFCS, sugars of all types, and diabetes to increase.

That was the point I was trying to make when I spoke to Stephanie Strom of the New York Times:

 “I think it’s a stretch to say the study shows high-fructose corn syrup has anything special to do with diabetes,” Dr. Nestle said. “Diabetes is a function of development. The more cars, more TVs, more cellphones, more sugar, more meat, more fat, more calories, more obesity, the more diabetes you have.”

She noted that the study “falls right in the middle of the Corn Refiners fight with the Sugar Association,” a reference to the legal war being waged between the two industry groups over the marketing of high-fructose corn syrup.

The Corn Refiners press release quotes its president, Audrae Erickson:

This latest article by Dr. Goran is severely flawed, misleading and risks setting off unfounded alarm about a safe and proven food and beverage ingredient.  There is broad scientific consensus that table sugar and high fructose corn syrup are nutritionally and metabolically equivalent…The bottom line is this is a poorly conducted analysis, based on a well-known statistical fallacy, by a known detractor of HFCS whose previous attack on the ingredient was deeply flawed and roundly criticized.

Whew.

Yes, HFCS is sugar(s)—glucose and fructose.  So is table sugar (sucrose).

But the bottom line goes for both: Everyone would be better off eating less sugar(s).

Addition to post: Dr. Goren wrote two e-mails to me in response.  With his permission, they follow.

Hi Marion,

I saw your comments in the NYT article that was published about our global HFCS paper.

You say that: “Diabetes is a function of development. The more cars, more TVs, more cellphones, more sugar, more meat, more fat, more calories, more obesity, the more diabetes you have.”

I wanted to mention that an often overlooked issue is that obesity is not the only factor contributing to type 2 diabetes and even the causal link between obesity and type 2 diabetes is unknown. Other factors include inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin resistance etc. In the study that was done with my colleague at the University of Oxford, the countries with high and low/zero HFCS were matched for obesity levels as well as total calorie and sugar availability. In essence this allowed us to isolate the effects of HFCS as a contributing factor, independent of obesity and the other factors that you mention that are related to obesity. I agree, as stated in the paper, that the ecological type analysis has its limitations, but in the case of HFCS it provided an opportunity to study its effects at the broader macro level. We did this because it is impossible to evaluate individual levels of HFCS consumption because we don’t know specifically how much is added to food/beverages.

The main critique of our study from the corn refiners association is based on their assertion that fructose and glucose are the same when in fact its textbook knowledge that their metabolic fate/pathways are very different. The CRA now says that sucrose and HFCS are “almost identical”. Almost identical acknowledges that they are different in some way which they are. Its a fact that HFCS-55 has at least 10% more fructose than sucrose and our prior study in which we analyzed popular beverages showed this was on average 20% and in some cases as much as 30% higher fructose. The key question in my mind is whether the additional fructose in HFCS is enough (even if its only 10% higher) to tip the balance towards the negative metabolic effects of fructose on health. This is at the heart of the issue and should be the focus of investigation. Our study, with its accepted limitations, adds to the growing body of evidence that the additional fructose coming from HFCS may indeed be enough to tip this balance.

His second message:

Thanks for responding, and yes, I’d be pleased if you added this to your blog –  - I think this will be a good addition. The question of whether the extra 10% fructose matters is indeed critical.

We also by the way did analyze total sugars versus diabetes in a much larger data set of 200 countries but the reviewers asked for that to be taken out which we did because we also thought the focus on HFCS would be unique. We also did see a clear relationship between total sugar and diabetes – some of that relationship was mediated by obesity but there also was an independent association between total sugars and diabetes. So, I agree – - both obesity and total sugars contribute to diabetes – - but I also believe, as shown in our paper, that HFCS has a separate link, and that this is probably due to the higher fructose content in HFCS.

Also, you mentioned in your blog that the different estimates of diabetes gave different results. That’s not really correct. The estimates of diabetes were different from each other, but regardless of which diabetes estimate we used, we still found a consistent association between HFCS and the 2 prevalence estimates of diabetes as well as fasting glucose. So in essence the results were validated using different prevalence estimates of type 2 diabetes.

Nov 26 2012

The farm bill is still in limbo. Now what?

My NYU Food Policy class meets tonight and we’ll be talking about the farm bill and Dan Imhoff’s most helpful book Food Fight: The Citizens’ Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill.

To review what’s up with the 2012 farm bill:

Congress updates farm bills every five years or so.  It passed the last one in 2008, with an expiration date at midnight on September 30, 2012.  This was the first time Congress ever set an expiration date to land in the midst of a presidential election.  This was asking for trouble.  Congress is paralyzed in election years.

That date has now come and gone.

But in June 2011, the Senate passed its version of the bill: The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012.

The House, however, was unable to come to agreement on its version: The Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012.

Why?  Election-year politics and disagreements about whether and by how much the SNAP (food stamps) budget should be cut.  More than 80% of farm bill spending goes to SNAP benefits—a whopping $72 billion last year–making it a prime target for budget cutting.

This situation puts us in farm bill limbo.

The significance of limbo is best explained by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

  • Without a new farm bill, commodity (corn, soybean, etc) support programs revert to permanent law contained in the farm bills passed in 1938 and 1949.  Why?  Because unlike subsequent bills, these did not have expiration dates.
  • The old laws reintroduce much higher support prices (through certain loans instead of payments), require much smaller crop production, and lead to much higher consumer prices.  They do not include  support for soybeans, other oilseeds, peanuts, or sugar, making them woefully out of date.
  • Limbo has no effect on SNAP or crop insurance.  Congress covered SNAP with a resolution for continued funding through March 2013.  The Federal Crop Insurance Act effectively authorizes crop insurance permanently.
  • Dairy programs are in turmoil.  Milk payments to farmers ended in September.  The dairy price support program ends on January 1.   Under the 1949 law, government-supported prices would be about four times higher than current law and about twice as high as current market prices.
  • The Agricultural Appropriations Act extended some—but not all—conservation programs through 2014.
  • The permanent law does not support the hard-won programs that encourage fruit and vegetable production: organic, farmers’ market, beginning farmer, socially disadvantaged farmer, or specialty crop programs.  These now have no funding.

This leaves Congress with three options between now and January:

  • Finish the current process and pass a bill (unlikely since it only has a few weeks to do this)
  • Vote to extend provisions through the 2013 crop year, or
  • Start from scratch all over again in a much tighter budget environment—the infamous “fiscal cliff.”

As NSAC explains:

The farm bill is the nation’s major food and agricultural policy vehicle and is about much more than the big ticket items: food stamps, crop insurance, and commodity support.  The farm bill is also about conservation and environmental protection, rural economic and community development, food system reform and agricultural research.

With no new farm bill or extension, the programs that address rural and urban job creation, natural resource conservation, renewable energy, and improved production and access to healthy food are in big trouble.

This is a big mess, and a serious result of dysfunctional government.  It will be interesting spectator sport to see how Congress handles it.

Will Congress find a way to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy?

Or will Congress simply do whatever is most expedient, given the budgetary mess it has also created.

It’s too bad so much is at stake.

Nov 23 2012

Easy Black Friday suggestion: 101 Classic Cookbooks, 501 Classic Recipes

The Fales Library at NYU has been collecting cookbooks and other food studies materials for the past 8 years or so, and now houses at least 55,000 books and additional thousands of pamphlets, menus, and other ephemeral food materials.

To celebrate the collection, Fales curator Marvin Taylor and food consultant Clark Wolf teamed up with Rizzoli publishers to produce a huge (5-pound),gorgeously illustrated book of descriptions of 101 20th century cookbooks, accompanied by essays on their value and maimportance by dozens of distinguished food writers.

I have a personal interest in this book. I teach at NYU and I wrote the Foreword to the book and an essay on 20th century books about nutrition.

Here’s some of what Rizzoli says about the book:

In this marvelous collection, 501 of these signature recipes have been carefully selected from 101 great cookbooks of the twentieth century—beloved tomes passed down through generations. The list of masterworks was chosen by an expert advisory committee that includes Jonathan Gold, Michael Pollan, and Ruth Reichl.

It is like having a library of culinary classics condensed into one volume. You’ll discover so many timeless gems, such as Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon, Elizabeth David’s Bouillabaisse, Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese Ragu, Jacques Pepin’s Brioche, James Beard’s Pig Hamburgers, and Irma Rombauer’s Devil’s Food Cake Cockaigne.

But you’ll also read about how these books and recipes revolutionized the way we eat. Interspersed throughout are nostalgic images from the vintage first editions. It is a fascinating culinary tour that in whole tells much of the story of American culture at large.

The book’s essays comprise a history of 20th century food.  The illustrations are magnificent.  I think it makes a splendid gift (full disclosure: I was not paid to write for the book, and I get no money from its sales).

Nov 21 2012

Mon dieu. The French “Nutella tax.”

Not to worry.  This is just a proposal.

A French Senator wants the country to impose a 300% increase in the tax on palm oil imports, thereby raising the price of products containing it—like Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread beloved by European children (and adults).

Of course they love it.  The first ingredient is sugar.

But the second ingredient is palm oil, high in saturated fats.  Palm oil production, again alas, is strongly linked to deforestation and other environmental problems in Malasia and Indonesia.

The proposed tax distresses Malasian palm oil producers:

The action…to propose onerous new burdens on palm oil producers, is irresponsible, badly-informed and ignores the primary source of saturated fats in the French diet [referring to trans fats].

The proposed tax also distresses the makers of Nutella, as well it should.  Most Nutella eaters probably think they are eating hazelnuts and chocolate.  It must come as an unpleasant surprise to learn that the first two ingredients are sugar and palm oil.

At a meeting in Boston this week, Joe O’Toole, the president of Lucullus, a French specialty food company, brought me the November 16 edition of Le Figaro.  He knew I’d want to see the two-page ad defending Nutella’s use of palm oil.

My rather loose translation:

Nutella, you are delicious but why do you have palm oil?

Let’s talk about palm oil.

For 50 years, the French have trusted us to be an important brand.  This is an important responsibility.  This is why we have always made responsible choices in our selection of ingredients.

Today, Nutella finds itself in an unjust position at the heart of a debate about palm oil….Palm oil gives smoothness (“l’onctuosité”) and stability to the recipe.

…Contrary to certain ideas and opportunistic communications…palm oil is not dangerous to health. Nutritionists say…Nutella contains less saturated fat than most snacks or breakfasts.

At the bottom of both pages, the ad says: “For your health, eat at least five fruits and vegetables per day.”

Oh.  OK. [It turns out that the French government requires this statement on all food ads.]

Nutella’s website has a Q and A.  For example:

How can Nutella® help moms at breakfast time?

It can be difficult to persuade children to eat breakfast. When used in moderation with complementary foods, Nutella® is a quick and easy tool to encourage kids to eat whole grains, such as whole wheat toast, English muffins, toaster waffles and bagels.

The chocolate milk argument!  It sounds better in French, no doubt.

Update, November 23: Thanks to Lucie for finding this annotated, alternative version of the ad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nov 19 2012

Energy drinks, Cracker Jacks, and caffeine: enough already

People who consume caffeinated energy drinks may be dying right and left (Because of the caffeine?  The drinks?  Hard to say) but that isn’t stopping food manufacturers from adding it to everything: Cracker Jacks, jelly beans, Gummi Bears, brownies, mints, and maple syrup.

The FDA has just released its data on problems reported among users of three caffeinated energy drinks.

According to the New York Times,

The three products involved in the release — Rockstar Energy, 5-Hour Energy and Monster Energy — are all marketed as dietary supplements. Other energy drinks like Red Bull, NOS and AMP are marketed by their producers as beverages. There is not a mandatory reporting requirement for beverages, though makers can do so voluntarily.

In releasing the filings, the F.D.A. said it thought that even with the mandatory reporting requirement for dietary supplements, “only a small fraction of adverse events associated with any product is reported.”

…The records related to Monster Energy and 5-hour Energy came to light because they were released by the F.D.A. under the Freedom of Information Act.

The choice of labeling these products as foods or supplements deserves scrutiny.  By an act of Congress, dietary supplements do not have to meet the same standards for content and health claims as foods, and the FDA cannot do much to regulate them unless the products are demonstrably harmful.

Even though people died after drinking these products does not necessarily mean that the products caused the deaths.  Even this number of deaths could be a coincidence.

But earlier, the Times reported that

Since 2009, 5-Hour Energy has been mentioned in some 90 filings with the F.D.A., including more than 30 that involved serious or life-threatening injuries like heart attacks, convulsions and, in one case, a spontaneous abortion….

Some lawmakers are calling on the F.D.A. to increase its regulation of the products and the New York State attorney general is investigating the practices of several producers.

I looked up the Supplement Facts label for 5-Hour Energy.

According to statements given to Beverage Daily, 5-Hour Energy says there isn’t any evidence that its products cause deaths.  Its shots contain no more caffeine than a cup of coffee, and do not contain herbal ingredients.

But the product label does not list caffeine content.  The FDA does not require companies to disclose caffeine levels.

It allows them to market the products as drinks or as dietary supplements. Monster Energy contains 240 mg caffeine in 24 ounces.  It has been associated with the deaths of five people so far.

The Times points out that healthy adults can consume large amounts of caffeine with no evidence of harm but that caffeine can be risky for people with underlying conditions like heart disorders.  How much is risky?  It’s hard to say.

Most adults know how much caffeine they can handle without getting shaky or sleep-deprived.  But kids don’t, necessarily.

Consumer Reports tested products and found that some energy drinks contained more than 240 mg per serving, but notes that packages sometimes contain more than one serving.

The FDA considers caffeine to be safe.  But in an opinion last updated in 2011, FDA’s Select Committee on GRAS Substances found that “it is inappropriate to include caffeine among the substances generally recognized as safe (GRAS). At current levels of consumption of cola-type beverages, the dose of caffeine can approximate that known to induce such pharmacological effects as central nervous system stimulation.”

The Times notes that sales of energy drinks in the U.S. are booming, growing by about 16% last year and bringing in nearly $9 billion.

What to do?  A lawyer for the parent of one of the teenagers who died after drinking Monster Energy is urging the FDA to ban the drinks to minors.

The FDA should investigate the cases, for sure.

And how about adding amounts of caffeine to labels.  That seems like a no brainer while the investigations are in progress.

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