Energy drinks are all the rage.
These beverages contain — besides calories — caffeine, along with other presumed energy-enhancing ingredients such as herbal extracts, B vitamins and taurine (an amino acid that supports neurological development and helps regulate the level of water and mineral salts in the blood.)
Sales of energy drinks are a staggering $4.8 billion a year. They are the darlings of the younger set (ages 13 to 35), who account for 66 percent of annual sales for a total of almost $2.5 billion. Two-thirds of this group are males, many of whom are probably trying to load up for the gym and other athletic pursuits.
But there is trouble in this caffeine-loaded paradise, specifically for the brand called “Monster Energy,” the first to be sold mixed with coffee. Monster is the top-selling energy drink in the U.S. and accounts for 39 percent of the market.
The Food and Drug Administration has received incident reports from doctors and companies suggesting that five recent deaths were linked to Monster beverages. Parents of one girl who died are suing Monster, claiming that her consumption of the drinks led to the caffeine toxicity responsible for her death (she did have an underlying health condition.)
The original Monster Energy Drink comes in a 16-ounce can as well as in the newer Mega 24-ounce size. Many of the drinks have the same caffeine content per ounce, but some are slightly higher because of the same energy blend being used in drinks with fewer ounces.
According to the FDA, caffeinated energy drinks can contain from 160 to 500 milligrams of caffeine. In comparison, 8 ounces of brewed coffee holds about 110 mg, 8 ounces of brewed tea contains close to 47 mg, while 12 ounces of two popular diet colas contain 27mg to 47mg of caffeine.
Moderate caffeine consumption is not a problem for most people, although it can cause a slight case of the jitters or other sometimes unpleasant effects. However, the Mayo Clinic points out that for people who are more sensitive to its effects or consume more than four cups of coffee per day, caffeine can lead to fast heart rate (tachycardia), nausea, muscle tremors and irritability.
In extremely high doses provided by the energy drinks now being challenged, abdominal pain, vomiting, tremors, heart attack and death may occur.
Emergency room visits from energy drink consumption have risen tenfold between the years 2005 and 2009, now numbering more than 13,000 annually.
Regulation of energy drinks varies throughout the world, but the U.S. has one of the least stringent set of rules.
According to the FDA, it is basically up to the company marketing the drink. This includes the option to sell it as a conventional food (requiring that they provide a Nutrition Facts panel on the packaging) or as a nutritional supplement (requiring only a Supplemental Facts panel).
FDA is now preparing a new final version of guidelines that will give the agency greater say on how energy drinks are presented to the public.
E. Kresent Thuringer is a registered member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is in private practice as a weight management specialist and medical nutrition therapist.