City Attorney Dennis Herrera Calls for Stricter Federal Regulations on Energy Drinks

Categories: Health

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Looks like a lot of reading there. Perhaps an energy drink to liven up?
There is less waiting these days. Cross the country in six hours. Exchange correspondence within seconds. Buy the new Jordan's with a click from the couch.

The few stretches of waiting -- 20 seconds on the elevator, three minutes at the taco truck, an hour at the DMV -- turn into stretches, via smartphone, of news consuming or email responding or game playing.

Unfortunately, that great evolutionary hiccup, sleep, keeps getting in the way of our endlessly doing things. Nature's way of holding our species hostage for several hours each day. But, just as we've circumvented the problem of waiting, we've engineered solutions to the problem of sleeping. The energy drink!

Of course, conquering nature is never as easy as it initially seems. Perhaps man was not meant to shotgun 250-plus milligrams of caffeine in a single sitting. Energy drinks may have played a role in over a dozen deaths in the last few years, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera thinks the Food and Drug Administration needs to start tightening regulations around the energy drink industry.

There is a strong consensus of scientific opinion that the caffeine levels in energy drinks have not been demonstrated to be safe, but rather pose a serious public health risk, particularly to young people to whom energy drinks are aggressively marketed, Herrera wrote in a letter sent today to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

Herrera, who has been investigating Monster Beverage Corporation since November, joined 18 scientists to urge the FDA to require that energy drinks disclose their caffeine content on the product label. The scientists, a national cohort, included two UC Berkeley professors, Patricia B. Crawford and Kristine Madsen, UCSF professor Jeffrey Olgin, and Charles Wibbelsman, the Chief of Adolescent Medicine for the city's Kaiser Permanente. In a separate letter also sent to the the FDA today, the scientists argued that caffeine levels in energy drinks "pose serious potential health risks." Energy drinks, the scientist explained, "differ from coffee in three important ways."

First, the caffeine in coffee is naturally occurring, while the caffeine in energy drinks is added by the manufacturer and is thus subject to regulation by the FDA as a food additive. Second, many energy drinks and related products containing added caffeine exceed the caffeine concentration of even the most highly caffeinated coffee. Third, coffee is typically served hot, tastes bitter, and is consumed slowly by sipping. By contrast, energy drinks are typically carbonated, sweetened drinks that are served cold and consumed more rapidly. Indeed, energy drinks are often marketed in a manner that encourages consumers to ingest large quantities quickly (e.g., "pound down," "chug it down"). Unlike coffee, energy drinks are marketed in a manner designed to appeal to youth and are highly popular with youth. A scientific review funded by the National Institutes of Health has concluded that the risk for energy drink overdose is increased by the combination of marketing that specifically targets adolescents.

Those health concerns have entered the public discourse recently when a lawsuit against Monster revealed the FDA's ongoing investigations into the dangers of these super-caffeinated beverages. FDA files showed that Monster possibly played a role in the deaths of five people since 2009, and that Five Hour Energy possibly played a role in 13 deaths since 2008.

In order to avoid FDA regulation, some energy drinks classify themselves as "dietary supplements" rather than conventional foods. Dietary supplements don't have to disclose as much on their labels, however they are not exempt from sales tax and they cannot be purchased with food stamps. Red Bull is classified as a conventional food. Five Hour Energy is listed as a dietary supplement. Monster was a dietary supplement, too until a few weeks ago, when Monster Beverage Corp. announced that "The Company saw no reason to continue being subjected to erroneous and misguided criticism that its Monster Energy drinks are being marketed as dietary substances to avoid FDA regulation."

Conventional beverages can only contain additives that are FDA approved. Herrera wrote that the caffeine additives in energy drinks do not meet this standard: "The FDA has approved caffeine as [Generally Recognized As Safe] only for use in cola-type beverages in concentrations no greater than 200 parts per million, which is substantially less than the amount of caffeine added to energy drinks."




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