The Buzz About Caffeine and Energy Drinks

In recent weeks, the controversy over the possible health risks of energy drinks and supplements has come into the limelight. Here, we dissect the latest issues surrounding their safety, and what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is doing about it. 

On November 14, FDA released information from health filings about the popular supplement 5-Hour Energy. Since 2009, 90 adverse event reports (AERs) were filed with FDA, 30 of which have involved life-threatening injuries, such as heart attacks, convulsions and even one spontaneous abortion. There have also been 13 deaths reported over the last four years that could possible be related to 5-Hour Energy. Although these incidences were filed with the FDA, this does not mean that this product was the cause of illness or death. When Living Essentials, the distributor of 5-Hour Energy was contacted, they stated that their product is safe when used as directed.

Just days later on November 18, FDA revealed more statistics involving the energy drinks, this time on Red Bull. According to FDA, since 2004 there have been 21 AERs for this energy drink, which involved hospitalizations for heart problems and vomiting, but again, these filings do not prove causation.

With the recent buzz surrounding this topic, the December issue of Consumer Reports dissected the caffeine levels in our nation’s most popular energy drinks. The caffeine levels ranged from 6 mg to 242 mg, with the average 16-oz coffee containing 330 mg. The publication found that often energy drinks might be inaccurately labeled, or simply not labeled at all. In fact, manufacturers are not requiredto label caffeine levels on energy drinks or supplements. Furthermore, because some products are considered energy drinks, like Red Bull, while others are deemed energy supplements, like 5-Hour Energy, there are different rules governing ingredient and reporting requirements.

This brings us to the latest action that is being taken regarding this issue. Recently, Senators Durbin (IL) and Blumenthal (CT) composed their third letter to FDA, asking to meet with commissioner, Margaret Hamburg. In their letter, they pleaded for the agency to look into the health issues surrounding energy drinks and supplements. They asked them to discuss the interactions between caffeine and additional stimulants found in these drinks, and to address the health risks of children and adolescents consuming caffeine.  Based on current studies, Consumer Reports stated that a safe consumption levels for caffeine are 400 mg/day for a healthy adult, up to 200 mg/day for pregnant woman and 45-85 mg/day for children.

In a letter dated November 21, Michele Mital, acting associate commission for legislation at FDA, responded to Durbin and Blumenthal. The agency stated that though caffeine-containing energy drinks are a relatively new class of products, ceffeinated products have a long history of safe use. The letter noted FDA is "working to strengthen our understanding of the nature of 'energy drinks' and any causal risks to health." They are especially looking at whether products safe for most people may be toxic in excess to other vulnerable groups like those with pre-existing heart conditions.

The agency also stated they will fully investigate deaths that could be associated with energy drinks, including asking families and physicians for the victims' medical records. Also of note, FDA stated it is committed to finalizing a final draft guidance that distinguishes dietary supplements from foods/beverages as quickly as possible.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, January 2013 (online 11/26/12, updated 11/27/12)