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Arguments over energy drinks not likely to end in court

Chart showing effects of caffeine on the human body
Chart showing effects of caffeine on the human body
Mikael Haggstrom/Wikimedia Commons (Universal Public Domain)

The never-ending debates fueled by the effectiveness or harm or lack of either attribute of so-called energy drinks has lately made it into court. (http://money.msn.com/business-news/article.aspx?feed=AP&date=20140717&id=17785300 ) No surprise there, considering the inflated claims of the companies manufacturing and capitalizing on the alleged boosters of endurance in a bottle. The latest litigants are the States of Washington, Oregon and Vermont versus the makers of “5-Hour Energy”. Named as defendents in the current cases are companies Living Essentials LLC and Innovation Ventures LLC. The former of the two firms is a marketing company based in Farmington, Michigan. Its parent company is the latter, Innovation Ventures LLC, also of Farmington. Searches online, however, have differing variations of which is the creator of the drink and which is actually the distributor. Other irregularities in the information given refer to the sole person who originated the formula (known in some sources as Manoj Bhargava (see the Forbes article, which appears to be most reliable: http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2012/02/08/manoj-bhargava-the-mystery-monk-making-billions-with-5-hour-energy/) and even the location of the companies. When information concerning any product is this dodgy, a red warning flag should automatically go up whether you are a consumer or an investor.

In the case of this particular product, the states’ attorney generals are claiming the companies involved are making false claims about the effectiveness as well as the safety of the drink. Nonsense, according to the energy shot people. With the main ingredient being caffeine, and supposedly no sugar, guarana , or other stimulants, its makers maintain that this drink contains less caffeine than the amounts in a variety of sizes of cups of coffee from Starbucks, as per this ad: http://www.5hourenergy.com/facts/.

Not so, according to numerous reports ranging from WebMD (http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/energy-shots-review ) to their own claims comparing their drink to those of Starbucks (see previous sentence). The 5 Hour drinks begin around 200 mg. of caffeine for a 2-ounce shot (note: 2 ounces in metric, to put it all in perspective, is approximately 56699 milligrams, or in more practical terms, since 1000 milligrams equals 1 gram, that is 56.699 grams, or nearly 57 grams. Whew!). The extra-strength versions carry a bigger punch although the company neglects to list amounts online. Their advertisements comparing even regular strength kinds to coffee, though, is misleading. The average cup of coffee comes in with about 180 mg. of caffeine for an 8-ounce cup.

Perhaps the makers of this drink do not see the public as capable of figuring out that there is a vast difference in effect at work. When you have a certain amount, even in the 200 mg. range, in an 8-ounce beverage, the ingredient (caffeine in this instance) is going to be more diluted than when in a bottle a quarter of that size. Another factor is that coffee is usually going to be consumed by sips rather than gulped in one shot, as with 5-Hour Energy. The amount of caffeine hitting your bloodstream all at once rather than in gradual doses over a much longer time frame is obviously going to have a much faster, and harder, effect. Kind of like a bug hitting a windshield of a car traveling at 100 m.p.h. rather than one going at 30 m.p.h. The stimulus to the heart and adrenal glands will be like a kick in the head instead of like an alarm clock going off next to you.

Innovation Ventures et al maintains, also, despite lawsuits against themselves over the past several years, that their products are safe for adolescents. There have been a number of deaths of youths who consumed large quantities in a short time of these energy drinks, leading to heart arrhythmia, convulsions, high blood pressure, and even miscarriage among other serious health problems (see http://www.fda.gov/downloads/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/OfficeofFoods/CFSAN/CFSANFOIAElectronicReadingRoom/UCM328270.pdf ). Considering that younger people may have lower body weight in some cases than that of adults, and may not be fully physically developed, the amount of caffeine consumed can have a much different, ie., stronger, effect on their hearts and other internal organs.

At this time only a warning about a supposed “niacin rush” involving a facial flushing, the presence of aspartame, and a mention of some caffeine-related effects like sleeplessness or rapid heartbeat, are listed on the products’ labels. A warning also exists advising pregnant or nursing women, or those under twelve years of age, not to use this product. Yet their website continues to claim the products are safe, and misleads as to the actual amounts of caffeine other than in their decaffeinated versions. Confusing?

There should be, in addition, a warning about the potential harm when the drink is consumed with, following, or preceding the use of alcohol or any type of recreational or prescription drugs. All of these factors need to be weighed in carefully for the benefit of the public, no matter what their age or condition, to avoid catastrophes.

Despite the eventual outcome of the lawsuits under way at this time, or in future, regarding 5-Hour Energy or any other energy drinks, the fact is, this stuff is out there and is not likely to disappear. The FDA, doctors, and other groups concerned with the public health need to make more noise about the risks involved with use of these substances. It took a long, long time before the tobacco and alcohol companies grudgingly placed warnings on their products. They are still battling the reputations they have earned as health destroyers. Let’s hope the energy drink purveyors learn from their mistakes soon.