THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION (FDA) Announcement on November 17, 2010, that caffeineis an unsafe food additive to alcoholic beverages will effectively make several “premixed” alcoholic energy drinks prohibited for sale in the United States. Additionally,the Federal Trade Commission has notified manufacturers that they are engaged in the potential illegal marketing of unsafe alcoholic drinks. These rulings have been regarded by some as a welcome response to an increasing public health risk. Scientists and health professionals assisted in the FDA action by arguing that, on the basis of evidence from an increasing number of scientific studies, the direct addition of caffeine to alcoholic beverages does not meet the “generally recognized as safe” standard.1 Nevertheless, these premixed alcoholic energy drinks are only a fraction of the true public health risk.
In this Commentary, we outline why regular (non alcoholic) energy drinks might pose just as great a threat to individual and public health and safety. More research that can guide actions of regulatory agencies is needed. Until results from such research are available, the following should be seriously considered: health care professionals should inform their patients of the risks associated with the use of highly caffeinated energy drinks; the public should educate themselves about the risks of energy drink use, in particular the danger associated with mixing energy drinks and alcohol; and the alcohol and energy drink industries should voluntarily and actively caution consumers against mixing energy drinks with alcohol, both on their product labels and in their advertising materials.
Energy drinks are beverages that contain modest to relatively high levels and concentrations of caffeine (range: 50-505 mg caffeine/serving; 2.5-35.7 mg caffeine/oz) compared with other caffeinated beverages such as a 12-ounce cola (range 34-54 mg; 2.9-4.5 mg caffeine/oz) or a 6-ounce cup of coffee (range 77-150 mg; 12.8-25 mg caffeine/oz). In contrast, energy “shots” are low-volume (1-2 oz) beverages and therefore have an even higher concentration of caffeine than other energy drinks (range 100-350 mg; 90-171mg caffeine/oz). Although the actual caffeine concentration in some types of coffee varies substantially, with some levels comparable to that of some energy drinks, coffee is usually consumed hot and therefore more slowly. A major challenge for health professionals and researchers is the heterogeneity of the numerous energy drink products available; also the industry is largely unregulated.