Open letter to Time regarding energy drink article in “The Answer Issue”

Greetings Ms. Nancy Gibbs and Time Staff,

Normally, I find Time Magazine articles engaging and insightful but the article “Energy drinks have doctors worried—but business is booming” by Ms. Alexandra Sifferlin was severely disappointing.

Did you know that the top-selling energy drink has less caffeine and less sugar per serving than a tall mocha from Starbucks? The Issue Contents page features the question, “Should your kid drink Red Bull”, but Original Red Bull has 80 mg caffeine, 27 g sugar in 8.46 fl oz can versus the 90 mg caffeine, 35 g sugar in tall (12 oz) cafe mocha. This is not to say Red Bull is without its hazards. In fact, the biggest hazard with Red Bull is the alarming frequency with which this drink is mixed with alcohol! Unfortunately, the dangerous combination of alcohol and energy drinks was completely omitted from this article.

Did you know that the European Food Safety Authority recently ruled on caffeine safety? The European Food Safety Authority determined that single doses of caffeine up to 200 milligrams (mg) and daily intakes of up to 400 mg do not raise safety concerns for adults in Europe. Granted, these levels are applicable to healthy adults, but Health Canada recommends a limit of 60 mg for 7-9 year-olds, 85 mg for 10-12 year-olds, and 400 mg for those 13 and up. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a caffeine limit of 100 mg per day for those under 18, it’s worth noting that the caffeine limits for thirteen-year-olds in Canada are different than those for thirteen-year-olds in the US. Unfortunately, none of these dosage recommendations made it into the article.

As a food scientist who’s studied energy drinks for over 10 years, Ms. Sifferlin’s article came across as yet another “all energy drinks are lethal” story. While the article was missing many crucial facts, there were three points in particular that should be part of the conversation.

(1) Energy Drinks and the ER

The article did mention, “Energy drinks have been linked to more hospital visits than coffee or soda”, but 42% of the visits attributed to energy drinks also involved alcohol or other drugs, according to the DAWN (Drug Abuse Warning Network) report on energy drinks and ER visits from January 2013. This DAWN report doesn’t include any data on how much caffeine was consumed prior to the emergency room visit, or over what period of time it was consumed, so it’s unclear whether those admitted had used the products as directed or ignored the warning labels. Energy shots are notoriously difficult to consume as directed because it’s exceptionally easy to ignore the fine print on the label instructing the user to swallow only half the contents of the tiny bottle. Whether energy drink-related ER visits are due to proper or improper consumption is crucial to understanding whether the danger from caffeinated beverages comes from their inherent makeup or from their misunderstanding and misuse. Consumer awareness and caffeine education would make a huge difference here.

(2) Energy Drink Consumption Among Adolescents

The article states, “About 50% of adolescents consume energy drinks, according to a recent report in Pediatrics, and 31% do on a regular basis, increasingly opting for energy drinks over soda.” This is partially true but the article “Trends in Caffeine Intake Among US Children and Adolescents” in Pediatrics found that soda is still the primary source of caffeine, but the contribution from both coffee and energy drinks is increasing. According to this article, 24 of every 100 milligrams of caffeine consumed by adolescents comes from coffee; only 6 of 100 milligrams comes from energy drinks. This figure is corroborated by a robust, well-designed study in Food and Chemical Toxicology, involving over 40,000 participants. That study, “Beverage Caffeine Intakes in the US” found, “Of all caffeinated beverage consumers, only 4.3% were consumers of energy drinks….The greatest proportion (9-10%) of caffeinated beverage consumers consuming energy drinks were teenagers or young adults; however, only 5-7% of total caffeine intake was attributable to energy drinks in these age groups.” In other words, 90% of this great nation consumes caffeine on a regular basis, but only 10% of those people get their caffeine from an energy drink.

But the energy drinks of 2003 don’t exactly look like the energy drinks of 2015, which brings me to my third point.

(3) The New Wave of energy drinks don’t resemble their forefathers

There are numerous “energy drinks in disguise” that don’t fit the stereotype; subsequently, any news story on energy drinks becomes inapplicable unless it specifies the exact nature of the hazard. If energy drinks are bad because they are “loaded with caffeine and sugar”, then what about the caffeinated beverages with less than 100mg caffeine per serving, sourced from green tea, with less than 5 grams sugar? If energy drinks are bad because they cause the jitters, then what about the energy drinks that don’t contain caffeine? Starbucks Refreshers, V8 V-Fusion + Energy, Avitae, and FRS Healthy Energy are just some of the energy drinks that break the mold and foil these proposed hazards. If energy drinks are bad because they lead to risky behavior, then why don’t we address the dangers of combining caffeine, from any source, and alcohol? Any good bartender knows that giving black coffee to a drunk only makes them a wide-awake drunk. The danger of mixing these two is not isolated to energy drinks.

If you’re as serious about caffeine safety as I am, I would love to hear your thoughts on the points I raised above, and on how we can help consumers understand that not all energy drinks are created equal.


Danielle Robertson

Caffeine Informer – Caffeine in Red Bull

Caffeine Informer – Starbucks Grande Caffe Mocha

Caffeine Informer – A comprehensive list of sugar content in soda and energy drinks.

IFIC Food Insight – UPDATED EFSA Publishes Scientific Opinion on Caffeine: Confirms Daily Intakes that Do Not Raise Safety Concerns

Pediatrics – Trends in Caffeine Intake Among US Children and Adolescents

Food and Chemical Toxicology – Beverage caffeine intakes in the U.S

Food Navigator USA – DAWN report on energy drinks and ER visits Correlation is not causation but something is going on here

GreenEyedGuide – Energy Drinks and the ER – perspective

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