How Dangerous Are Energy Drinks?


On November 14, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disclosed that 13 deaths over the last four years have been linked to consumption of the drink 5-Hour Energy.

Two weeks earlier, the FDA had issued a warning about Monster Energy drinks, noting that five people had died after consuming the beverage during the past three years.  In one case, the parents of a 14-year-old blamed their daughter's cardiac arrest death on the fact that she drank two Monster Energy drinks within 24 hours. They cited the caffeine content as the culprit.

These products are widely available and widely consumed.  In fact, during the past decade, numerous highly-caffeinated drinks have hit the market, from the 2-ounce shot of 5-Hour Energy to Red Bull to the 16-ounce servings of Monster, Rock Star, NOS or Amp.

The FDA, however, does not issue adverse event reports for dietary supplements, which is how these energy- and vitamin-packed drinks are classified.  However, since 2006, it has been mandatory for the beverage companies to file adverse event reports with the agency.  The companies dispute any suggestion that the drinks are associated with consumer deaths.

However, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that more than 13,000 emergency room visits were associated with energy drinks in 2009 alone.

So some members of the U.S. Senate have urged the FDA to take action against energy drinks, either through issuing warnings about adverse affects or even banning the beverages entirely.

Are energy drinks really unsafe?

The FDA suggests that 400 to 500 milligrams of caffeine a day is safe for adults to consume.  The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, recommends that youths not consume energy drinks at all.

The Associated Press claims Monster Energy Drink comes in 24-ounce cans and contains 240mg of caffeine, "seven times the amount of the caffeine in a 12-ounce cola."

Monster Energy does not list the caffeine content on its product, though its closest competitors (Rockstar, Amp and Red Bull) have between 160 and 240 mg of caffeine in a 16-ounce can.  Monster cans do carry a label, however, noting that drinking more than three cans daily is not advised.  There is also a warning label stating that these drinks are "not recommended" for some consumers, including children or people who are "sensitive" to caffeine.

For comparison, a cup of coffee has between 95 and 200 mg of caffeine, depending on how strong the coffee is.  A grande coffee from Starbucks has 330mg of caffeine, while a venti has 415 mg.

To date, the FDA has said it does not believe the current data would justify taking drinks off the market. While it continues to investigate claims of deaths alleged to have been associated with Monster, the FDA says this does not believe the product was directly responsible.

What does research show?

A variety of studies have been published on the safety of energy drinks.  One 2003 report from the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association concluded that, "The amounts of guarana, taurine, and ginseng found in popular energy drinks are far below the amounts expected to deliver either therapeutic benefits or adverse events. However, caffeine and sugar are present in amounts known to cause a variety of adverse health effects."

A 2009 study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that energy drinks may not be suitable for adolescents, as young people rarely have a tolerance to caffeine and can be putting themselves at high risk.  Additionally, it suggested that those with genetic vulnerabilities should avoid the products.

In a 2011 issue of Pediatrics, doctors were warned of potential for "serious adverse affects," particularly caffeine overdoses among young people.  The report also called for long-term research on the beverages.

In short: drinking copious amounts of any beverage is probably a bad idea, and this includes energy drinks.  However, as the FDA has said, these products are not inherently unsafe on their own.


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