Energy Drinks: Their Contents Are a Mystery

Red Bull. Rockstar. Monster.

They could be the names of ultimate fighters or black diamond ski runs, but as any American not living off the grid knows, they are the names of energy drinks, a food category that exploded into consumer consciousness in the late 1990s.

Basically, whether marketed as food or dietary supplements, they all sell caffeine. And while caffeine in moderation isn’t harmful for most people, there’s little guidance about the quantity of caffeine-which some sources define as a drug, others as a food additive and others as a stimulant chemical found in plants-in these drinks. There’s also a paucity of information about other ingredients in these drinks.

As noted in a recent story on NPR, there’s no consensus on exactly what an “energy drink” is. Today, you find canned coffee, tea and even fruit juice spiked with extra caffeine. There’s little research about their effects.

One researcher for the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health called for better labeling of these products in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) titled “The ‘High’ Risk of Energy Drinks.”

The American Beverage Association drafted guidelines for energy drinks, but it’s up to manufacturers to include them on product labels. The guidelines call for caffeine quantity, warnings about mixing drinks with alcohol and noting that they are not intended to be consumed by children, pregnant or nursing women or people who are sensitive to caffeine. A few years ago, we wrote about energy drinks being linked to heart problems.

Still, what is an energy drink? According to Susan Carlson of the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety, “They range all over the place, from products that have probably no caffeine to products that do have caffeine and products that have ingredients that may contain caffeine. But there is no regulatory definition for energy drinks, per se.”

Regardless of whether an energy drink calls itself a food or a dietary supplement, the FDA has no regulatory limits for caffeine content. Those apply only to cola drinks. Red Bull has about twice as much caffeine per can than Coke.

By law, the FDA has the right to question a manufacturer’s use of an ingredient and its safe use of an ingredient. The agency is concerned about conventional foods being marketed as dietary supplements, and, Carlson told NPR, it has taken public comment to draft industry guidelines.

If you’re sensitive to caffeine, or simply like to be informed about the contents of manufactured food products before you consume them, make your feelings about energy drinks known to the FDA.

In addition, visit product websites, where more information might be forthcoming. If not, let manufacturers know that you’re not likely to purchase their product unless you know what’s in it.

Now that even Minute Maid has introduced juice “enhanced” with caffeine, the energy drink craze really deserves scrutiny.

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