Energy Drinks Survey Finds Confusing Marketing, Unclear Caffeine Content

Energy drinks have been the subject of a heap of controversy recently. From claims of false advertising to disturbing news about deaths that followed energy drink consumption, not all is good in this $12.5 billion beverage sales category.

As a result of these concerns, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) surveyed the practices of 14 energy drink brands. Their report, titled "What's This Buzz All About?" (PDF) found that labeling and marketing practices varied widely across the different brands, which resulted in a lack of transparency for consumers.

Each of the 14 brands was asked to answer 14 survey questions. All the companies responded to the questions, except for Sambazon, which asked to be removed from the investigation, and 5-Hour Energy, which provided a copy of its patent in lieu of answering questions.

The survey found that because some energy drinks are marketed as dietary supplements while others are sold as conventional beverages, seemingly similar products are regulated differently in terms of labeling requirements, ingredient listing and communication with the Food and Drug Administration. For example, the FDA requires reporting of any incident of serious adverse effects related to dietary supplements, but not to beverages. Likewise, beverages do not need to list the quantities of their ingredients, whereas dietary supplements do -- unless they are part of a "proprietary blend."

According to the congressional report, "The blurred distinction between supplements and beverages is a source of confusion for consumers." See how energy drinks vary:

energy drinks chart

Customer confusion continues when it comes to caffeine levels, the report argues:

The caffeine content varies widely between the energy products surveyed, and in many cases is not disclosed on the product label. In cases where it is disclosed, companies vary in the way they present this information, sometimes impairing consumers' ability to make informed decisions about caffeine levels in the products they are purchasing.

The problem is exacerbated with the larger cans of energy drinks. The 24- and 32-ounce cans may contain several servings, but the cans are not resealable, which means people may drink several servings at once and consume more caffeine than they realize. Some brands don't list precise amounts of caffeine at all and instead use terms like "caffeine equivalent to 2 cups of coffee." See the variations:

energy drink survey

Here's the amount of caffeine in these popular brands, compared to the level the FDA has recommended as safe:

energy drink survey

The high levels of caffeine in many of these beverages are especially risky for children and adolescents. One recent study found that energy drinks represent 8.8 percent of all the beverages consumed by high school students, who may drink them to help with athletic performance. But the congressional report cites several studies that found the risks of consuming that much caffeine outweigh any supposed benefits of increased performance.

Energy drinks are a relatively new product category, and the report notes that their combination of ingredients has largely not been assessed for safety by the FDA.

The report ends with four recommendations for energy drink makers: Label products more clearly, display a warning about high caffeine levels, stop marketing to anyone under age 18, and report to the FDA any serious adverse effects.

Read the full report here.



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