Manufacturers of energy shots and drinks may want you to think the energy is coming from special substances in their proprietary energy blends, such as tyrosine, taurine and B vitamins. The ingredient more likely to make you feel energetic or “buzzed,” however, is the caffeine (or caffeine-containing herbs like yerba maté and guarana), which can be present in hefty amounts.
There’s nothing wrong with a cup or two (or even three) of coffee for most people, but swallowing large amounts of concentrated caffeine can cause jitters, upset stomach, agitation and insomnia, especially on an empty stomach and in those who don’t regularly consume caffeine. People with underlying heart conditions, as well as teenagers and children, may be particularly vulnerable to caffeine’s effects.
In recent years, 18 deaths have been linked to high-caffeine energy drinks (13 deaths to 5-Hour Energy and 5 to Monster Energy), along with more than a hundred other adverse events, including seizures and cardiac arrest. In October 2012, the mother of a 14-year-old girl who died after drinking two bottles of Monster Energy sued the company; her lawyer has urged the Food and Drug Administraton (FDA) to ban the sale of such products to minors.
How much caffeine is in these products? It’s hard to know, since the FDA does not require labeling, and companies tend to keep mum. But a recent analysis by ConsumerLab.com revealed some numbers. Monster Energy M-3 was found to have 206 milligrams of caffeine in a 5-ounce bottle (about as much as 2 cups of regular brewed coffee), and the company recommends up to 3 bottles a day. 5-Hour Energy had a similar amount—in one tiny (2-ounce) bottle. Meanwhile, a new investigation by Consumer Reports of 27 energy drinks found that caffeine ranged from 6 milligrams (in a decaf product) to 240 milligrams per serving—and some bottles had more than one serving. Complicating matters, energy drinks often contain other ingredients that act synergistically with caffeine.
Should you consume energy drinks?
Energy drinks are not the proven cause of the reported deaths, and the manufacturers maintain that they are safe when used as directed. Experts say that most healthy adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day. But people’s responses vary widely. If you’re sensitive to caffeine or at high risk for caffeine complications, you’re best off avoiding these drinks, especially if you don’t know how much caffeine they contain. Children, young teens, and pregnant women should avoid them, too.
Ideally, there should be a limit on how much caffeine can be added to energy drinks and mandatory labeling of amounts. Two senators have joined the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other consumer and health groups in calling for tighter regulations. In response, the FDA has promised to review their safety and “take action as needed.” We’ll keep you posted.