Do Energy Drinks Need Warning Labels?

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on October 14, 2009 · 1 comment

Energy drinks are one of the fastest growing beverage categories, with new innovations coming out all the time. More than 500 new energy drinks are launched yearly. Two of the newest are energy shots — small bottles (about 2 ounces) that deliver the same energizing components in a smaller volume — and malt beverage-energy drink combos, which pack alcohol and high caffeine levels together.

Not everyone is thrilled with these newfangled drinks, and say they’re hazardous to health and safety.

Alcoholic energy drinks are popular with young people who mistakenly believe the caffeine will counteract the intoxicating effects of alcohol. When you drink them, you may feel less drunk but you still have reduced motor skills and visual reactions times—which makes you more dangerous to yourself and those around you, especially if you try to drive.

The primary stimulating ingredient in energy drinks is caffeine or herbal forms of caffeine such as guarana seeds, kola nuts, and yerba mate leaves. The caffeine content in one drink can range from 48 to over 300 milligrams. Energy shots deliver the same amount of caffeine but in a smaller volume. Though most brands tell consumers to use only one shot at a time, and drinks no more than two shots per day several house apart, not everyone follows the directions.

Young people experiment with multiple shots for a quick buzz or mix a shot and a standard energy drink to enhance the effect. Long haul truckers find them appealing because the small shots help them stay awake without needed  frequent bathroom breaks. Adults in the 35-plus category use energy shots to sharpen their game at work. Women like them because they are low in sugar and calories but still pack the espresso punch. They are even small enough to go through airport security screenings.

With all these possibilities for abuse, many caffeine experts are calling for warning labels.

The caffeine content of some brands can equal more than 10 cans of Coke, yet the amount of caffeine is usually not listed and few brands include warnings about the potential health risks of caffeine intoxication. Over-the-counter drugs containing large amounts of caffeine must carry warning labels.

A one-ounce Ammo shot has 171 milligrams of caffeine, Bawls has 67 milligrams in a 10-ounce can, Beaver Buzz 110 milligrams in an 8.3-ounce can, and Cocaine Energy Drink has 280 milligrams in an 8.4-ounce can. Without caffeine content labeling the consumer has no way of knowing if they are getting a little or a lot of caffeine. It is like drinking an alcoholic beverage and not knowing if you’ve consumed the amount of alcohol in a bottle of beer or a double shot of scotch.

Researchers in Australia have linked Red Bull consumption with an increased risk for stroke. Caffeine is a diuretic and an excessive load could create adverse cardiovascular effects. High daily doses of caffeine increase the risk for miscarriage, yet energy drinks carry no warning label for pregnant women.

Consider these facts. As soda consumption is falling in the US, energy drinks are filling the gap. The industry has sales of 3.4 billion yearly and growing. Thirty-one percent of teens (7.6 million) use energy drinks. Cases of caffeine abuse have been on the rise over the last 3 years with 12% of reported cases requiring hospitalization. The average age of caffeine abuse victims is 21.

Yet, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot control the caffeine content of energy drinks because they are marketed as dietary supplements, not beverages. The FDA regulation of no more than 71 milligrams of caffeine in a 12-ounce can of soda does not apply.

In a settlement with more than a dozen state attorneys general, MillerCoors agreed to remove caffeine, taurine, guarana and ginseng from Sparks, a popular caffeinated malt beverage. Earlier in 2008 Anheuser-Busch agreed to a similar settlement to stop producing caffeinated alcoholic drinks.

Should energy drinks have more stringent labeling requirements? You decide.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc. Nov. 2009

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