When the number of people who have either been injured by or died because of energy drinks continues to climb, the FDA starts getting nosey. “FDA is continuing to investigate reports of illness, injury or death of people who took products marketed as ‘energy drinks’ or ‘energy shots,'” they reported late last year, as the numbers continue to climb at an alarming rate.
To be more specific, WebMD shared the following deaths and illnesses linked to leading energy drink brands:
- 5-Hour Energy Shots – 13 deaths, 92 illnesses
- Monster Energy – 5 deaths, 40 illnesses (including a teenage girl)
- Rockstar Energy – 13 illnesses, 2 disabilities
These reports date back to 2004, but became more prevalent in 2021 as usage continued to climb making energy drinks the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry, according to New York Times. These drinks alone sold an astonishing $10 billion. But the cost to consumers appears to be so much higher.
People are swiping these bottles of liquified energy off shelves by the armful hoping to no doubt have more energy, feel more alert, and have an overall better feeling of wellness. Experts are saying these drinks are no more than glorified caffeine, however, which you can get in a cup of coffee. Dr. Roland Griffiths with Johns Hopkins University told the New York Times, “They don’t want to say this is equivalent to a NoDoz because that is not a very sexy sales message.”
What separates these drinks from a NoDoz or cup of coffee is the amount of caffeine used. A standard eight-ounce cup of coffee has 100 milligrams of caffeine, while its energy drink competitors have at least double in most cases. For instance, 5-Hour Energy has 215 milligrams and Rockstar Shots have 229, according to a study by Consumer Reports.
“Many of the [energy] drinks have the equivalent of several cups of coffee per serving and each bottle has multiple servings,” explained Dr. Josh Umbehr, an owner and physician at AtlasMD. “If a person drinks several cans of these drinks then they are getting a very high dose of stimulants.”
How high exactly? Dr. Umbehr explained that “a Monster Energy drink doesn’t have as much caffeine per ounce as an espresso, but then most people don’t drink 24 ounces of espresso!” This according to information at EnergyFiend.
Then, there are other supplemental additives that create the divide that, frankly, aren’t even needed for the energy boost consumers are clamoring for. “Proprietary formulas” are touted in the marketing of Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy, and their competitors, but if you compare bottles these products tend to have the same blend of the same ingredients, few of which industry experts, Dr. Umbehr included, claim do any good.
What, if anything, is special about these drinks? “Nothing other than caffeine. The B vitamins are useless for energy, it’s all just caffeine,” he said.
In fact, Red Bull touts a study by the European Food Safety Authority (Europe’s version of The American FDA) that clears it of any health concerns, but then conveniently doesn’t mention a report by that group suggesting that the health claims were unsubstantiated. Based on Red Bull’s assertions that its ingredients, primarily taurine, assist with “immune system protection” and “metabolism processes,” the EFSA’s final declaration was that “…the claimed effect is general and non-specific, and does not refer to any specific health claim…”.
As for claims that Red Bull can boost cognitive and mental health functions, the EFSA also debunked that, concluding “…that a cause and effect relationship has not been established between the consumption of taurine and contribution to normal cognitive function.”
Finally, Red Bull also claims that use of its product can prevent premature muscle fatigue during a workout, and the EFSA squashed that, too, by saying, “…the Panel concludes that a cause and effect relationship has not been established between the consumption of taurine and a delay in the onset of physical fatigue during exercise.”
What is happening is that people are dying after consuming these products. And many are winding up in the hospital with an array of health problems. WebMD reported such events as a miscarriage linked to 5-Hour Energy; hospitalization for irregular heartbeat and psychotic disorder linked to Monster Energy; disability from irregular heartbeat or stroke linked to Rockstar Energy.
“People aren’t aware of how much caffeine they are ingesting, that in combination with alcohol can lead to heart complications and other issues,” said Dr. Umbehr.
Not only is the FDA launching an investigation into the efficacy of these products, but more importantly the safety, but New York’s State Attorney General is doing the same, as they announced in October of last year. After reporting on that story, Rachel Berman, RD, director of nutrition for Calorie Count, suggested consumers boost their energy “with a balanced diet, maximizing foods high in refined sugar and saturated fat, getting enough sleep and exercise, and drinking plenty of water.” This, she says, is how to stay energized the natural way.