They are supposed to be an antidote to the fast-paced, frenzied life we lead where there is too much to do and not enough time to do it.  At least that is one of the ways so-called high energy drinks are marketed.  These are those highly concentrated caffeine concoctions sold by the likes of Monster Beverage, Red Bull and Rockstar Energy which are designed to give you that extra boost when you are running on empty.  These drinks have catapulted themselves into their own $20 billion a year powerhouse industry.  The problem is their popularity has been fueled in large part by their appeal to children.  And there is growing concern that for this group, these high octane pick-me-ups are posing some very serious health risks.  

That was the central message of a large group of doctors, researchers and public health experts who in a recent letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged the agency to more strictly regulate these beverages.  Directing their entreaty to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg herself, these healthcare specialists — from some of the most prestigious universities, medical schools and hospitals in the country — detailed the basis of their deep concern:

  • About one-third of middle school and high school students (eighth grade and up) consume energy drinks, with one study reporting that 18% of eighth graders use one or more energy drinks a day.
  • The caffeine concentration of energy drinks can be more than three times higher than that found in sodas (as much as 240mg versus 70 milligram per can).  Many energy drinks exceed the caffeine concentration of even the most highly caffeinated coffees.
  • Unlike coffee, which is served hot, tastes bitter and is consumed slowly by sipping, energy drinks are typically carbonated, sweetened, cold and consumed quickly as encouraged by the makers of these drinks (e.g., the “pound down” or “chug it down” Monster Energy drink labels).
  • The use of high energy drinks by adolescents and youths has been associated with serious health complications including obesity, heart and neurological complications, seizures, and even death.

The collection of healthcare specialists concluded from all of this that something must be done to protect children from the dangers associated with these beverages:

[T]here is evidence in the published scientific literature that the caffeine levels in energy drinks pose serious potential health risks, including increased risk for serious injury or even death.  We therefore urge the FDA to take prompt action to protect children and adolescents from the dangers of highly caffeinated energy drinks, including applying the existing GRAS [Generally Recognized as Safe] standard for sodas to energy drinks . . . .

This is a sentiment that has been echoed by a number of organizations devoted to the health and safety of children, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine.

In a sign that perhaps the industry is beginning to take these concerns to heart, the leading supplier of energy drinks, Monster Beverage, just announced that it is changing the way it sells its drinks.  Where the company used to sell them as dietary supplements, it will now sell them as conventional beverages and thus be subject to FDA safety standards for food and beverage additives.  This would include clearly identifying the total caffeine content on the product’s label.  Monster’s changeover follows a similar move made recently by Rockstar Energy.  Monster is playing up its reclassification as an answer to what it calls the “misguided criticism” that it has been purposely avoiding stricter FDA oversight of beverages (compared to supplements).  Rockstar similarly characterized its conversion as a pro-consumer gesture to provide an easier-to-read food label.

Others are not so sure these recent makeovers are truly designed to serve the public interest.  The New York Times, for example, recently reported that the category switch simply may be a stratagem to dampen the fire the industry is facing on several fronts from the growing number of reports of death and injuries associated with these potent brews.  A highly cited report recently issued by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that more than 20,000 emergency room visits in 2011 were linked to energy drink consumption.  This was more than double the amount of such visits recorded for 2007.  As the Times noted, under their new beverage classification, energy drink makers will have to provide greater disclosure of their products’ ingredients.  However, they no longer will be required to report to the FDA so-called “adverse events” in which their products were potentially linked to an injury or death.

Perhaps it is this change in reporting requirements which is really driving Monster and others to reclassify their products.  Or maybe these companies are sincere in their desire to serve a more informed and age-appropriate clientele.  Whatever the reasons, the FDA and other responsible agencies (such as the Federal Trade Commission) would be wise to heed the growing chorus of concern of the dangers these drinks pose to children.  Whether it be more closely regulating the product labels, requiring greater product disclosures, limiting how much caffeine the drinks contain, restricting who can purchase them, or putting a tighter check on how and to whom they are ultimately marketed.  It seems apparent that this is an industry in need of greater regulatory oversight and control.