Scary energy drinks such as Monster, Red Bull, Rockstar and Full Throttle are in the news this Halloween season. Sadly, the dangers are very real.
The drinks come in colorful cans with buzzworthy, even Halloweeny, designs, and are one of the fastest growing segments of the beverage market, with sales in 2011 that topped $9 billion. They are targeted to people 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 comes from a whopping dose of caffeine.
With all these monstrous drinks, it’s a case of buyer beware. Labels on the cans 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.
WAPF members are not likely to be tempted by these drinks any more than they are by other sodas, fruit juices and beverages. Yet we all have family and friends looking for bursts of energy, and the overriding issue here is the consumer’s right to know what’s in these drinks and possible dangers.
In the past three years, at least five people have died after drinking Monster energy drinks, including 14 year old Anais Fournier, who went into cardiac arrest last December after drinking two 24-ounce Monster drinks with her friends at a mall. This week 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.
Just labeling would be start. Because the FDA considers these drinks to be supplements, not sodas, the agency does not require caffeine content to be included on the label. The key issue obviously is the consumer’s right to know what is in foods and beverages we consume. With monster drinks, it’s even hard to 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, had mitral valve collapse, but had not been warned of any special danger by her doctors.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman recently 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, consumers are not given the opportunity to make educated decisions.
Last April 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. This month the agency responded that most energy drinks contain no more caffeine than might be found in a cup coffee, plus 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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For more about this topic, read my interview “Another Reason to Skip Energy Drinks; They Could Cause Depression and Anxiety” with Deborah Dunham, posted on Blisstree, a website that has posted many informative blogs on the dangers of energy drinks. http://blisstree.com/eat/nutrition/another-reason-to-skip-energy-drinks-they-could-cause-depression-and-anxiety-550/
Other primary and secondary 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