Chemicals and Food Safety in the 21st Century

I was honored to be asked to contribute to this discussion on “chemicals in our food”. This is the fourth in a series of collaboration between Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience and In Defense of Processed Food. This discussion is also published via Chemicals and Food Safety in the 21st Century by Danielle Robertson Rath

I’m at a party and I see a veggie platter, bags of chips, and a plate of raw hamburger meat. I’m confused, are people supposed to make burger patties themselves and barbecue them outside? This seems like an odd thing to do at someone else’s house. Other people at the party assure me this raw meat is actually steak tartare, perfectly fine to eat as-is, but I can’t bring myself to try it. This is a challenge for the heart, the body, and the brain. In my heart, there is too much fear this meat would make my body violently ill. In my brain, I don’t have enough information to accept this food is safe for me to eat.

Danielle Robertson Rath offers the fourth in a series of collaborations with Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience. Danielle is the go-to authority on caffeine and energy drinks so what better person to help us look at the safety of chemicals in our food?

Food poisoning is an awful experience, but what’s worse is when your food is making you sick and you can’t tell. Some people worry about chemicals in food making us sick. We have a right to be worried or, at least, to be skeptical.

In 1856, William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic organic dye. That discovery launched the practice of using dyes to color food. Nearly 100 years later, several children became ill from eating Halloween candy which was colored with FD&C Orange No.1, a dye that was, until that point, considered safe. As technology advances, we may discover some ingredients are less safe than we previously thought. We can reevaluate, just like the FDA did in 1950 –the year those children got sick from the orange dye, U.S. House Representative James Delaney began holding hearings on the safety of food additives. This prompted the US FDA to reevaluate all the listed color additives and remove the ones that caused serious adverse effects.

Science has come a long way since 1950. As technology advances, we have microscopes that are more powerful than ever. The difference is like admiring the leaves of a maple tree from the roof of a 10-story building versus being right there under that tree, holding its leaves in your hands. With this new sight, this new power, we face a dilemma. How do we know what to look for? How do we know what matters most? How do we reconcile the heart, body, and brain?

Holy Hill Wisconsin Rath Photo Shoot

Consider the ingredients in an energy drink. Red Bull is the world’s number one top-selling brand, so let’s use that. Red Bull’s full list of ingredients includes caffeine, B-vitamins, taurine, citric acid, sodium bicarbonate, magnesium carbonate, and sweeteners glucose and sucrose (or artificial sweeteners Aspartame and Acesulfame Potassium in Red Bull Sugarfree). Red Bull is undoubtedly a processed food, but its ingredients list may have less “chemical-sounding” ingredients than one would expect. Nonetheless, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has a few of these Red Bull ingredients on their Chemical Cuisine List in the “AVOID” section. And yet, the worst chemical in Red Bull is…


RedBull SugarFree Ingredients List

There are plenty of people on board with the “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” campaign, and you can find concerned citizens blogging about every one of the items on Panera’s “No No List”. These “clean label” initiatives certainly speak to the heart, but let’s give the brain more data to analyze the situation. Caffeine has killed people. Several people. Compared to caffeine, chemicals like acesulfame potassium look like a lazy college roommate who never stops playing video games.

While acesulfame potassium has been accused of giving cancer to lab rats, there are several people who have died or almost died because of caffeine:

  • A Nigerian man died after drinking 8 cans of an energy drink similar to Red Bull
  • A man from the UK died after eating a whole tin of caffeinated mints
  • A New Zealand woman’s death was linked to her habit of drinking 10 liters/day of Coca-Cola
  • A 19-year old man died after taking 25-30 No-Doz pills
  • A 17-year old woman nearly died after drinking 7 double espressos

Caffeine is more dangerous than most, if not all, the food additives that get a bad reputation in today’s media. Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance on the planet. At least 85% of the population consumes caffeine on a daily basis, and it’s not just in drinks anymore. It’s in gum, candy, mints, bread, desserts, and other snack foods.

While some people metabolize caffeine quickly and feel none of its effects, everyone else can feel it affecting their body and mind. Caffeine’s positive effects include alertness, endurance, and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Caffeine’s negative effects include insomnia, jitters, addiction, headaches, anxiety, chest pain, acid reflux, gastrointestinal upset, and agitation. And these are just the effects we know about for sure.

There are over 100 different experimental studies on the effect of caffeine on heart rate, and still, we have no decisive answer. Most of those studies suggest caffeine has no effect, but other studies can’t agree on what the effect is. We can’t tell if caffeine makes the heart rate go up or down. It would be a win/win if we could say, “Either caffeine does nothing or it helps protect the heart,” but the research conflicts itself here.

Another aspect that makes caffeine more dangerous than other chemicals in our food is how caffeine affects different people. People with hypertension (high blood pressure) and people at risk for hypertension are advised against consuming caffeine because the blood pressure increases these people experience are stronger and longer than the increases experienced by everyone else.

Caffeine is at its worst when it’s combined with alcohol. Bartenders know the only thing worse than a drunk is a wide-awake drunk. At least when you’re drunk and passed out, you stop drinking, you stop harassing people, and you stop sharing your deepest thoughts with total strangers. When people drink caffeine and alcohol together, they are more likely to drink too much, more likely to take more risks like drive or ride with a drunk driver, and more likely to get injured.

Even without caffeine, alcohol is more dangerous for your health than scary chemicals like artificial colors or sweeteners, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), and azodicarbonamide (the “yoga mat” chemical in bread). Even at concentrations below the legal driving limit, alcohol impairs reflexes, changes brain function, and impacts behavior.

Heavy or binge drinking is associated with increased risk of liver cirrhosis, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, impaired immune function and increases the incidence of chronic inflammatory diseases like osteoporosis, sarcopenia, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Chronic alcohol abuse leads to increased susceptibility to bacterial and viral infections.

Your brain might be saying, “Of course caffeine and alcohol are dangerous, but that’s only when you have too much.” There’s the rub. Caffeine and alcohol are some of the worst chemicals in our diet. We know the risks, but we drink it anyway because we know there is an amount that is safe to consume. To paraphrase Paracelsus, the difference between a poison and a cure is the dosage. This lesson is ingrained in our brains for alcohol and caffeine. And yet, we forget this lesson when we become afraid of other food chemicals. We don’t stop and ask the same questions we would if it were alcohol or caffeine: “How much can I have and still be okay?”

If you want to consume a diet free of artificial sweeteners and colors, free of ingredients with long names you don’t recognize, that is your right. However, don’t forget to give your brain some time to weigh in – is your heart being manipulated before your brain has a chance to process the data? As technology advances, we will have more power than we can imagine. We might be able to detect arsenic in juice at microscopic levels that weren’t remotely possible 10 years ago. We might be able to discover or synthesize new ingredients that change the food industry just like William Henry Perkin’s discovery of food dyes. And just like the FDA did in 1950, we will need to reevaluate the safety of the old, the current, and the new. We would benefit from treating our discoveries like caffeine and alcohol, remembering that the quantity and context make all the difference.

Next week [on In Defense of Processed Food]: The elusive connection between health, safety, and food.


Danielle Robertson Rath is a food scientist, consultant, speaker, and the founder of Her book “Are You a Monster or a Rock Star: A Guide to Energy Drinks – How They Work, Why They Work, How to Use Them Safely” is widely considered the ultimate resource for caffeine drinkers everywhere. Danielle aka “GreenEyedGuide” started studying energy drinks while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and master’s degree in food science. She has been fascinated by caffeinated beverages and their ingredients ever since.

Book GreenEyedGuide as a guest speaker – here

Get your copy of MY BOOK: “Are You a Monster or a Rock Star: A Guide to Energy Drinks — How They Work, Why They Work, How to Use Them Safely” on Amazon and NOW ON AUDIBLE

What I Learned After 10 Years of Researching Energy Drinks – GreenEyedGuide Presentation for Cal Poly Pomona

Does Taurine really come from bull sperm? How much caffeine do 18-year-olds drink in the US? Are energy drinks worse for your heart than coffee? How have energy drinks changed our caffeine habits from 20 years ago?

With 10+ years of researching the energy drinks and their ingredients, food scientist and biochemist GreenEyedGuide answers all those questions and more. This presentation was shared at the All Club All Student Conference at Cal Poly Pomona, hosted by CPP Food Science Society January 11, 2018.


Background and Methodology
Common Ingredient Misconceptions
Caffeine Consumption in the USA
Common Energy Drink Misconceptions
5 Levels of Fatigue

Full Transcript

How many of you, students, teachers, everyone – how many of you have had those nights where you just cannot fall asleep. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about something; maybe you can’t get comfortable; maybe there’s light and noise – for whatever reason, you can’t fall asleep.

Now think about the last time you woke up exhausted. Your alarm goes off, you get up, start moving around and you just feel it, in your eyes, all over your body – you’re exhausted. And right then and there, part of you knows that this day is going to be awful, because it’s the beginning of the day, and you’re not going to have a chance to sleep for several hours.

This was my life throughout high school.

I was a straight-A student with all honors and advanced placement classes. I did gymnastics 20 hours a week and competed nation-wide. Also, I helped my mom (a single working mom) take care of my 3 siblings. I constantly got 5 hours of sleep or less and fell asleep in class.

Starbucks didn’t exist. Energy drinks didn’t exist. Can you imagine such a world?

My story isn’t that special – here in this room, there are hundreds of you who struggle to balance work, school, family, etc.

What makes my story special, however, is that I started studying biochemistry the very same year Monster Energy hit US Markets. From the moment an energy drink was put into my hands, I knew I wanted to study the science behind it.

Some say it’s hard to be a woman in a science field. For me, personally, it’s been more difficult to be a scientist for something which people have already made up their minds.

When I tell people I research energy drinks. Can you imagine what they say? I usually get 1 of 3 responses:

  • Energy drinks, like how bad they are? Do you talk about how they’re like poison?
  • You study energy drinks? Why? Aren’t there enough teenagers on YouTube who review energy drinks? Why don’t you study something that matters?
  • Wow, energy drinks. What did you learn?

I’ve learned so much, sometimes I think I need a pensive. As scientists, we often find ourselves at odds with fear and misconceptions. With energy drinks, there are misconceptions about the ingredients, misconceptions around the products themselves, and even misconceptions about how much caffeine our great nation consumes.

What makes my work different from that of a dietitian or any other food scientist? My focus has always been very specific: energy drinks and their ingredients. My research includes a comprehensive literature review of the top 20 energy drink ingredients. For each ingredient, I reviewed clinical trials, studies on proposed biological mechanisms, interactions between ingredients – anything and everything that helped me understand what the ingredient would do in the human body.

I did this literature review while I was earning my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and master’s degree in food science. My education gave me a solid foundation for me to put what I was reading into context.

I also reviewed regulatory documents from the US and other countries. In the US, there is no legal definition for the term “energy drink”, but groups like the American Beverage Association offer some guidance documents to help fill the gap. I also learned from the Warning Letters the FDA issued to manufacturers of supplements and caffeinated beverages.

I studied proceedings from the Mayo Clinic, regulations from Health Canada, and the Official Scientific Opinions of the Scientific Committee on Food, and European Food Safety Authority.

So, what have I learned…

Let’s start with my all-time favorite ingredient misconception…

Red Bull sold 13 BILLION Dollars of product in 2015. I don’t know how this taurine myth got started, but it doesn’t make cents – it’s not economical.

The name *TAURINE* does come from Bos taurus, the genus and species of ox.

Taurine was first isolated from ox bile in 1822. (Bile is a fluid made by the liver that aids digestion)

TAURINE IS ALREADY INSIDE YOU! We get taurine from high protein food like meat. Also, the human body makes taurine from amino acids cysteine and methionine.

Why do we need taurine?

Imagine you need to get from point A to point B. You normally walk, but it’s pouring rain, and you’re wearing your nice clothes. Taurine is like a taxi that can deliver you to your destination safely, so you don’t get soaked. This is how Taurine helps with fat absorption.

The fat molecules in the food you eat can’t be metabolized if they can’t be absorbed, and your body is mostly water. So how do they get to the place they need to be without getting soaked? Taurine links with a bile salt so it’s part-water-soluble and part-fat-soluble. The fat-soluble part is like the inside of the taxicab – Hop in, let’s go get digested.

Taurine has another important job – protecting the heart. Taurine helps your body restore the ideal balance of sodium and potassium, reducing water retention and relieving uncomfortable bloating.

It also helps regulate the levels of calcium ions inside heart muscle cells, protecting the heart from calcium imbalances that can lead to heart muscle damage.

This is why taurine is prescribed for congestive heart failure and, coincidence or not, the amount prescribed is about the same amount found in one of the leading brands of energy drinks.

Another ingredient misconception involves Ginkgo. In Chinese medicine, ginkgo is associated with health benefits ranging from memory to anxiety to tinnitus.

I’m sorry, but the cake is a lie.

One of the most comprehensive studies on ginkgo involves 3,000 people over 8 years, where ginkgo was consumed at 120 mg a day. But ginkgo didn’t reduce the incidence of dementia or Alzheimer’s. So, does ginkgo help with memory over the short term? For every well-conceived study suggesting gingko has an effect, there’s another one, just as well conceived, that shows no significant difference.

If I were to ask you what the #1 energy drink ingredient is – the most used ingredient in all energy drinks, would you guess caffeine? It’s Vitamin B12. There are more energy products with B12 than caffeine.

Why? B12 must do some pretty amazing things in the body then… I mean there are those B12 shots, right? B12 must be like an energy super-hero….

As it turns out, B12 makes a great wingman.

As you drink your tea, coffee, or hot chocolate, think about all the cells from your mouth down your esophagus and your GI tract. Those cells go through a lot of wear and tear, and Folate’s job is to help DNA synthesis so those cells can be repaired or regenerated. But folate would be stuck without B12.

As folate goes through this cycle, it comes to a point where it’s stuck with its hands full. This is like when you’re holding two coffees and you’re trying to pull open a door. B12 comes along and helps folate get unstuck so it can go back to work.

None of this has to do with energy though.

B12 is also Biotin’s wingman. Boring Basic Biotin only knows one dance move it takes a carbon dioxide molecule from one place and adds it onto another place.

In this reaction down here at the corner, Biotin makes a molecule that’s 3 carbons long 4 carbons long. B12 reorganizes that molecule and poof – it can enter the Krebs cycle, the massive wheel of energy in the body.

So yes, B12 helps, but look at all the reactions involving B2, B3, B5… those are the real heroes when it comes to energy.

If you’re not a fan of energy drinks, I respect that, but there’s a far greater issue.

We have misconceptions about how much caffeine we drink as a society. If I asked you how many milligrams of caffeine you have every day, would you know the number? Probably not. Who cares, I know how many cups of coffee, isn’t that enough? No. Here’s why.

This figure comes from a study published in 2012. When I read it, I loved it so much, I wrote an email to the author. She wrote me back – it was awesome.

In this study, they surveyed ~42,000 people from all age groups and demographics. They made sure their sample was representative of the US population. They asked people how much caffeine they consumed, and they did something no other study has ever done before or since.

When I read research articles about “Caffeine in the Military” they ask how many energy drinks did you consume. They don’t ask which ones, they don’t distinguish sports beverage from energy shot from coffee or tea.

In this study, they got specific. They got the specific brands and flavors of energy drinks, coffee, tea, energy shots, sports beverages, chocolate beverages. Then they used the Caffeine Informer database to calculate exactly how much caffeine was in that brand, that size, that flavor.

This graph is the most accurate representation we have for Caffeine Consumption, from any source, excluding medication, in the US.

Two things to keep in mind – The American Academy of Pediatrics says those under 18 should not consume more than 100 milligrams of caffeine a day. If you’re a healthy adult, several organizations from several different countries agree 400 milligrams is the max.

So right away we see the caffeine crisis in America isn’t as bad as one might think.

This paper I love so much gets even better. For each age group, we now know where that age group gets their caffeine. These numbers are not exclusive. If you’re a 17-year-old and sometimes you drink soda, sometimes you drink tea, this graph counts all those occasions.

For tweens and teens, we see the biggest contribution to caffeine is soda. 77% of this age group get their caffeine from soda.

Second is tea, then coffee, then energy drinks are last.

What happens when this group reaches adulthood? What do you think the #1 category is going to be?

For college-age people, soda is still the #1 contributor. And tea is still #2! But look at how much coffee has grown.

Energy drinks are still in last place! And these two age groups have the highest energy drink consumption across the whole age range. It never gets better (or worse?) than 10% of the age group.

As people get older, they drink less soda and more coffee. We see this trend through the whole age range. The seniors and super-seniors are primarily coffee drinkers and tea drinkers.

Here’s a study I would love to run. People who are under 21 have never lived in world without Red Bull. I would love to know whether this coffee and soda trend applies to energy drinks that look like soda versus energy drinks that look like coffee.

As people get older, they drink less soda and more coffee. We see this trend through the whole age range. The seniors and super-seniors are primarily coffee drinkers and tea drinkers.

Here’s a study I would love to run. People who are under 21 have never lived in world without Red Bull. I would love to know whether this coffee and soda trend applies to energy drinks that look like soda versus energy drinks that look like coffee.

Assuming you drank the whole container, which drink has the most caffeine?

Surprising, right? Also surprising that this juice drink here has about the same amount of caffeine as Red Bull. True, one’s natural caffeine, one’s not, so let’s look at Red Bull and V8. Would parents freak out if they caught their kids drinking V8?

You already know the caffeine amount in the coffee, so how does that compare to a monster energy, a “pre-workout” drink, and a coffee flavored protein drink? The protein drink has more caffeine than the Monster. Again, how many parents would freak out about their kids drinking this? How many would even realize how much caffeine is in here? It looks like a Muscle Milk competitor. If you’re a student-athlete and you drink 2 of those Muscle Milk drinks a day, then switch it with this thinking they’re the same, we could have a problem.

This is why this is so important – if we continue to say things like “all energy drinks are dangerous concoctions of chemicals, caffeine, and sugar”, we are missing out on a potentially life-saving opportunity to bring the focus to overall caffeine consumption.

“But Danielle, surely caffeine from an energy drink is worse than caffeine from coffee, right?”

Last year, a teen in South Carolina died from a caffeine overdose. Among the things he drank that day:

  • Mountain Dew
  • McDonald’s latte
  • Undisclosed energy drink

The energy drink was the last thing he consumed. We don’t know how much caffeine was in that drink, or what other ingredients were in it. Which means we can’t talk about ingredient interactions. We’re missing some critical data, but this article states that a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found energy drink consumers could be at higher risk of abnormal heart beats and dangerous changes in blood pressure.

Any paper proving energy drinks are worse than coffee would be a major game changer, so I took a look at the study myself.

This study was double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized, and cross-over. They did find that 2 hours after consuming an energy drink, participants had QT prolongation of ~10 milliseconds. A prolongation of 60 ms is a marker for life-threatening arrhythmias.

However, they stated pretty clearly that there was no difference in heart rate or blood pressure at any point between placebo and energy drink groups. How does “no difference” get translated into “dangerous changes in blood pressure”?

This quote is from the authors of that study. This was randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, and cross-over – which is like gold standard as far as trials. BUT they only included 18 people, people in their mid-20s. If you haven’t hit 30 yet, let me tell ya, your metabolism gets a lot different.

Also, they used 320 milligrams of caffeine, which is over 150% the recommended limit per serving. Healthy adults are only supposed to have 200 milligrams of caffeine at a time.

This isn’t the only study to get misinterpreted. There’s a study in Pediatrics which I can’t stand because it’s constantly misquoted. When that study came out in 2012, headlines all over the place said, “energy drink consumption is on the rise in teens”.

Know why it’s on the rise? Because this study looked at caffeine consumption starting in 1990. So yes, energy drink consumption is on the rise…. FROM ZERO.

If you read the actual paper, the authors state mean caffeine intake has not increased among children and adolescents in recent years. We’re not drinking more caffeine, we’re just getting it from different places. Which brings me back to my point.

“If there’s a kid out there anywhere who thinks they can avoid all energy drinks but consume as many Mountain Dews, McDonald’s Caffe Lattes or Starbucks Grande coffees in one day as they want, we have failed.”

So how do we protect ourselves and our youth from the dangers of caffeine? I give you the 5 Levels of Fatigue. Ladies and Gentlemen, with this system I have helped bartenders cut back from 4 Monsters a day to half a can a day. I have helped my family, friends, and strangers on the internet avoid caffeine toxicity, dependence, and tolerance.

Here’s how it works:

Ever have one of those days where you’re just… amped. Maybe you just aced a final. Maybe that person you’ve been crushing on smiled at you. Maybe your favorite team just made the playoffs.

At Fatigue Level 0, you need no caffeine – you’re feeling great, awake, alert, alive.

Fatigue Level 1. Dehydration causes fatigue. If you’re feeling tired, whether it’s 5 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon, your first task is to drink water.

It doesn’t have to be plain water. Put some cucumbers in it, get carbonated water, add regular MIO, whatever, just don’t reach for caffeine. Not yet.

Fatigue Level 2. At this point, you have ruled out dehydration. Time to get some help. There are plenty of energy drinks with less than 100 mg per container, and with caffeine from a natural source. Here are some of my favorite examples.

For best results, you’re looking for something with natural caffeine, something NON-carbonated, and something with no sugar.

Carbonation and sugar do not belong in Fatigue Level 2.

Fatigue Level 3. Struggle City, population = you.

For best results, do not exceed 200 mg. That’s the limit for a single serving anyways.

You STILL don’t want anything carbonated – not yet.

Instead of carbonation, look for something with at least some juice content. That juice should give you a teeny bit of sugar, and drinks with juice are almost never carbonated. We don’t want carbonation yet.

Fatigue Level 4. out of 5. This is it. This is “Fall Asleep Standing” mode. This is “need to pull an all-nighter” or double-shift time.

Do. Not. Consume Fatigue Level 4 on a daily basis. Why? Because this is for emergencies only. What would happen if you had a fire drill at your school or work every day? You’d start ignoring it. And so it goes if you have this much caffeine every day. If you want the caffeine to work, you must not consume this caffeine on a regular basis.

Because it’s an emergency, it’s okay to go above the 200 mg – at – a time limit. This is also the point where we introduce carbonation. Why?

Ever wonder why champagne makes you drunk faster than beer or wine? It’s all about the bubbles. The bubbles irritate your stomach slightly, making it easier for your stomach to absorb 3 things – aspirin. Alcohol. Caffeine. Please do not consume all 3 at once.

Everything else has to wait until it gets to your small intestine to be absorbed. Caffeine gets in through the stomach, and when there’s carbonation involved, it gets in that much easier.

So if you had two energy drinks, each with 100 mg caffeine – the carbonated one is going to feel stronger. This is why the 5 levels of fatigue is a scale. There are incremental increases based on ingredients like sugar and caffeine.

Level 5 is sleep. There comes a point where no amount of caffeine can save you. There comes a point where you must give in and get some rest. When you hear stories about people who fall asleep while drinking an energy drink, it’s because they did not have the courage to admit to themselves when they’ve reached their limit. It’s extremely difficult to ask for help, to accept our limitations. But if we’re going to stay healthy, we have to acknowledge when we reach that point.

I am on a mission to promote safe caffeine consumption. If you would like to learn more about my campaign, what I do, my book, a particular drink, a particular ingredient, save this page in your favorites.

If you want to be an advocate for safe caffeine consumption, there are 3 things you can do:

  1. Don’t judge – If you’re a coffee drinker, don’t judge someone holding an energy drink. Maybe their drink isn’t as strong as you think. Maybe they could use your help, not your criticism if they’re always at Fatigue Level 4.
  2. Don’t mix caffeine and alcohol. Ever. Caffeine makes you feel like you’re not drunk (and isn’t that the fun part?) Your reflexes are still impaired and worse – if you’ve had too much alcohol, you won’t pass out when you’ve had too much. This is your body’s way of protecting you. Don’t break that protection.
  3. Don’t be boring. Caffeinated drinks are a spectrum. You wouldn’t wear the same color every single day, unless you’re Batman or Black Widow, so don’t drink the same caffeine every single day. Follow the 5 Levels of Fatigue

Thank you all.