by Marion Nestle
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.

  • Is the increasing supply of energy drinks creating and celebrating stress junkies?

  • Caffiene is GRAS? It’s about as GRAS as “grass”.

    Here’s a theory; after a few of these energy drinks, the high fructose load causes depletion of liver ATP and high uric acid levels. The lack of ATP slows the metabolism of caffiene; the uric acid depletes nitric oxide, restricting vasodilation. You have a blood pressure bomb.

  • Kari

    Most adults, I would argue, don’t know how much CAFFEINE they can handle. They know how much coffee, tea, or soda they can handle, which isn’t precisely the same thing. I have no idea what the actual dosage of caffeine is that I get in a day, because as you mention, it tends not to be featured on labels. It doesn’t help that they keep sneaking it into foods that don’t customarily have it.

    I believe people should be responsible for themselves, but they should be given the information they need to make intelligent decisions. There’s a five hour energy commercial that makes me see red every time it airs. . . a woman in a suit sits next to a stack of paper three feet high and uses a bunch of doublespeak to make it sound like doctors recommend the product. Here it is. . .

    Given the amount of parody this ad has received, I suspect the deception isn’t working, but there is indeed an attempted deception at work here, and I’m really glad it looks like these things are coming under more active scrutiny.

  • Perry

    You should also include the fact that high doses of B vitamins can cause nerve damage, and that most people who drink energy drinks do not do enough to actually burn off the extra calories and nutrients they’re dosing themselves with. That and the problem with kids isn’t so much the lack of awareness on how they can handle caffeine, but the caffeine and sugar addiction that causes them to drink multiple energy drinks in a row.

  • Marion, obviously, you do not read comments otherwise, you’d have acknowledged and taken into account that labeling products does not help regulate kids’ consumption as I stated in a previous comment.
    “Adding amounts of caffeine to labels” is nice and fine but won’t stop kids from consuming the nasty product because they don’t care and hardly read labels!!

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  • Do you feel the same about coffee?

  • Anthro

    Why all the B Vitamins?

    Someone close to me who quit alcohol and then cigarettes is now slamming these energy drinks, so I appreciate this follow up to the NYTimes article I was going to send this person.


    The trouble with almost any article (or even scientific paper) I’ve read about caffeine, is that its use is always defined as a “cup of coffee”. WelI, I make my coffee with about five times the amount of ground coffee that my mother uses, and no one ever defines the “cup” either–I mean who drinks an 8 oz coffee? The smallest cup sold at Starbuck’s is a 12 oz and most are 16 oz, as is mine.

    Any discussion of caffeine should be clear about the amount that is in a specific amount of coffee beans or a specific measure of ground coffee.

  • It’s baffling to me that companies are allowed to market any product as a “dietary supplement” and make false claims about their products having health benefits without any evidence of this being the case.

  • Perry, the amount of pyridoxine in energy drinks is not going to give someone nerve damage. I should know, I got this from relatively low intakes of B6, but they were still 100x the amount in the average energy drink, taken over many years.
    The vitamins supplemented in energy drinks are the same ones added to flour and rice. Taurine at high doses (3-4g/day) can cause problems for epileptics but is otherwise safe and generally beneficial (it’s a carnochemical that some vegans may lack).
    It’s unbelievable that caffeine can be added to products sold to children – or anyone – and not listed. This is not the case in New Zealand. Only caffeine in natural ingredients sch as guarana doesn’t appear on the label.

  • Gosh, how is it not on the label? I don’t really buy caffeinated drinks but here in the UK I’m pretty sure they have an icon on the can that shows how many cups of coffee the caffeine content is equivalent to.

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  • Amy


    FYI for all those looking for a smaller cup of coffee.
    Starbucks sells a SHORT version of all hot drinks(I stay away from the sugarccinos so I don’t know about the cold ones).
    They are off menu items but lots of people order them.

    Make sure you order SHORT not Small as Small will get you a Tall!

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  • Chris Mauldin

    You only focused on the caffeine in the article! How about some information on the vitamin levels and amino acids in these drinks. That’s the main difference between these energy drinks and coffee!