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Caffeine in ‘energy drinks’ should be restricted, health experts tell FDA

The FDA limits the caffeine in sodas to 71 milligrams per 12 ounces, but energy drinks often contain two or three times that amount — or more.

Monster Beverage has decided to start marketing its products as beverages rather than dietary supplements, allowing it to avoid certain disclosures.

Citing potentially serious health risks that energy drinks pose to children and teens, 18 doctors, researchers and public health officials urged the FDA on Tuesday to take prompt action to restrict the amount of caffeine in such products and to require manufacturers to list caffeine content on the products’ labels.

The request was sent in a letter to the FDA’s commissioner [PDF], Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg. The FDA is currently investigating whether the caffeine in energy drinks is safe.

Energy drinks, whose U.S. sales are projected to reach $19.7 billion this year, are particularly popular among teens and young adults. Some 65 percent of energy-drink consumers are aged 13 to 35, according to information provided in the letter.

One survey found that 18 percent of eighth-graders said they drank one or more energy drinks per day.

More caffeine

Not all energy drinks reveal their caffeine content, but, as background information in the letter points out, the amount in these drinks is generally much higher than that in sodas. The FDA limits the caffeine in sodas to 71 milligrams per 12 ounces, but energy drinks often contain two or three times that amount — or more.

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They are able to spike their products with so much caffeine because most energy drinks are marketed as dietary supplements, not food. Supplements fall under different regulations from foods.

Although coffee brands often contain more caffeine than that considered safe by the FDA in sodas (Caribou says its 12-ounce cup of coffee contains 230 milligrams of caffeine), energy drinks differ from coffee in several important ways, say the authors of the letter:

First, the caffeine in coffee is naturally occurring, while the caffeine in energy drinks is added by the manufacturer and is thus subject to regulation by the FDA as a food additive.

Second, many energy drinks and related products containing added caffeine exceed the caffeine concentration of even the most highly caffeinated coffee.

Third, coffee is typically served hot, tastes bitter, and is consumed slowly by sipping. By contrast, energy drinks are typically carbonated, sweetened drinks that are served cold and consumed more rapidly.

Insufficient evidence

The manufacturers of energy drinks have strenuously claimed their products are safe. But, according to the authors of the letter to the FDA, “there is neither sufficient evidence of safety nor a consensus of scientific opinion to conclude that the high levels of added caffeine in energy drinks are safe under the conditions of their intended use.”

According to one study, the number of emergency-room visits related to energy drinks more than doubled from 10,068 in 2007 to 20,783 in 2011. Excessive consumption of caffeine has been linked to elevated blood pressure, fast heartbeat, anxiety, headache, insomnia and digestive problems. 

The FDA has received reports of several deaths (most seem to be heart attacks) associated with the consumption of energy drinks, but such reports are not proof, of course, that the drink actually caused the death.

‘No place in diet of children’

Like sodas, energy drinks tend to have a high sugar count and thus can contribute to obesity. One 24-ounce can of the popular Monster Energy contains 81 grams of sugar — or the equivalent of 6.75 tablespoons of sugar, the letter’s authors point out.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that “rigorous review and analysis of the literature reveal that caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents.” And the Institute of Medicine has recommended that caffeinated beverages not be sold to children at school.

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Footnote: This morning the New York Times is reporting that Monster Beverage, the manufacturer of many energy drinks, including Monster Energy, has decided to start marketing its products as beverages rather than dietary supplements.

That switch, says Times reporter Barry Meier, “will bring significant changes in how [the drink] is regulated. Among them: Monster Beverage, the nation’s biggest seller of energy drinks, will no longer be required to tell federal regulators about reports potentially linking its products to deaths and injuries.”

Meier said a spokesperson for Monster Beverage offered two reasons for the supplement-to-beverage switch: “One was to stop what he described as ‘misguided criticism’ that the company was selling its energy drinks as dietary supplements because of the belief that such products were more lightly regulated than beverages. Another consideration, he said, was that consumers can use government-subsidized food stamps to buy beverages.”