Continuing his crusade against energy drinks on the front page of today's New York Times, business reporter Barry Meier notes that the special ingredients in products like Red Bull, Monster Energy, and 5 Hour Energy don't seem to do much of anything. Based on "interviews with researchers and a review of scientific studies," he says, the energy delivered by these drinks comes mainly from the caffeine, as opposed to the taurine, B vitamins, or other scientific-sounding additives:
"If you had a cup of coffee you are going to affect metabolism in the same way," said Dr. Robert W. Pettitt, an associate professor at Minnesota State University in Mankato, who has studied the drinks.
Energy drink companies have promoted their products not as caffeine-fueled concoctions but as specially engineered blends that provide something more. For example, producers claim that "Red Bull gives you wings," that Rockstar Energy is "scientifically formulated" and Monster Energy is a "killer energy brew."...
Promoting a message beyond caffeine has enabled the beverage makers to charge premium prices. A 16-ounce energy drink that sells for $2.99 a can contains about the same amount of caffeine as a tablet of NoDoz that costs 30 cents. Even Starbucks coffee is cheap by comparison; a 12-ounce cup that costs $1.85 has even more caffeine.
There is nothing wrong with pointing out that Red Bull does not really give you wings, or that the added value offered by energy drinks, as compared to other caffeine delivery devices, is speculative at best. But in the process of doing that, Meier contradicts the other, scarier prong of his attack on energy drinks, which is based on the claim that the caffeine they contain might kill you.
As Meier explains, "The drinks are now under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration after reports of deaths and serious injuries that may be linked to their high caffeine levels." He is referring to adverse event reports received by the Food and Drug Administration, which show only that someone experienced a symptom (or said they did) after consuming a product, not that the latter caused the former. Furthermore, the number of reports involving energy drinks is quite small compared to reports involving other widely consumed over-the-counter products. The "scrutiny" Meier mentions was prompted largely by his own alarmist coverage of the issue, which glossed over the fact that coffee contains more caffeine per ounce than energy drinks do.
But that was when Meier was trying to convince you that energy drinks are uniquely dangerous because they contain so much caffeine. Now that he is trying to show you what a waste of money these products are, he emphasizes that 12 ounces of Starbucks coffee delivers a bigger caffeine dose than 16 ounces of an energy drink. In other words, energy drinks are (as the No Doz slogan puts it) "safe as coffee." Safer, even. Will Meier remember that the next time he is trying to scare us about the deadly threat lurking inside those shiny cans?