A recent report examining trends in energy drink consumption claims that the U.S. market’s “exponential growth” has outpaced regulatory mechanisms designed for other beverages. M.A. Heckman, K. Sherry and E. Gonzalez de Mejia, “Energy Drinks: An Assessment of Their Market Size, Consumer Demographics, Ingredient Profile, Functionality, and Regulation in the United States,” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, May 2010. University of Illinois researchers apparently found that, despite a lack of scientific consensus as to their physiological and cognitive effects, energy drinks represent “more than 200 brands in the United States alone, all purporting to increase energy, longevity, and vitality in some form or another.”

The report provides an overview of these marketing strategies as well as common energy drink ingredients, including caffeine, taurine, guarana, ginseng, yerba mate, B vitamins and “health-promoting constituents” like antioxidant polyphenols. It claims that the majority of such products are pitched to teenagers and young adults “due to this generation’s on-the-go lifestyle and receptiveness to advertisements,” but companies have reportedly expanded their focus to include women, extreme sport enthusiasts and other demographics by emphasizing cross-promotional appeal, “intentionally defiant names,” or unique qualities “such as being all natural, organic, or gluten-free.” The research also highlights the current trend among college students to mix alcohol with energy drinks, citing studies that associate this practice with “an increased number of driving accidents or other alcohol-related incidents.”

Although they observe that most energy drinks contain less caffeine than eight ounces of coffee, the study authors conclude that the United States has “one of the less stringent” regulatory systems for these products. They note that laws limiting caffeine content in cola do not apply to energy drinks, which are required to list caffeine as an ingredient but not the amount, while no caps exist for other additives such as taurine. “An initial 1st step needs to be taken by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in regard to the regulation of energy drinks, which could be as simple requiring the manufacturers of these products to list the caffeine content as well as supply warnings if their product contains caffeine in the amount of a specified upper limit,” states the report. “The potential health risks associated with heavy consumption of these beverages has gone unaddressed and there ought to be a greater need to establish proper regulations.”

In a related development, a May 1, 2010, article by AlterNet writer Anneli Rufus focuses on the young men “driving the $6 billion energy drink industry.” With 65 percent of the market composed of males ages 13 to 35, this business thrives on caffeine-delivery mechanisms dubbed Crunk!!!, Blade or Blow advertised as “an adolescent dream come true: the legal high.” According to Rufus, “Energy drinks, along with the words and pictures used to sell them, are windows into young men’s worlds: their real worlds and those mental realms that, based on scientific research, marketers call ‘desired worlds’ – where young men go, what they buy, what they want.”

Rufus alleges that these marketing campaigns “reveal a cynicism even more profound than that of those who sell liquor or cigarettes or crack: at least they don’t pretend they’re selling something else.” She claims that despite their glossy pretense, energy drink sales bank on the fact that caffeine is as habit-forming as “liquor, cigarettes or crack.” Moreover, these products are able to exploit regulatory loopholes because, as one agency spokesperson conceded, “FDA has not addressed what the terms ‘energy’ or ‘energizer’ mean and what characteristics a product or ingredient must possess in order to use the terms.”

As a result, notes Rufus, groups like the Caffeine Awareness Association (CAA) are working to enact labeling changes for beverages, in part because they believe caffeine addiction starts in utero. “If the mother is drinking Red Bull, the baby’s drinking it too,” one CAA member was quoted as saying. “Children are the vulnerable ones. To a kid’s eyes, coffee doesn’t come in attractive packages, but energy drinks do. These cans look like video games, and that’s done on purpose. Kids think they’re cool, and kids are the ultimate victims.”

About The Author


For decades, manufacturers, distributors and retailers at every link in the food chain have come to Shook, Hardy & Bacon to partner with a legal team that understands the issues they face in today's evolving food production industry. Shook attorneys work with some of the world's largest food, beverage and agribusiness companies to establish preventative measures, conduct internal audits, develop public relations strategies, and advance tort reform initiatives.

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