Put Down That Coffee! The New York Times Says It Might Kill You!


For the last few weeks New York Times business reporter Barry Meier has been waging a campaign against energy drinks, beginning with an October 22 story headlined "Monster Energy Drink Cited in Deaths," referring to "adverse event" reports received by the FDA. In that piece Meier bragged that "Monster Beverage's stock ended down Monday more than 14 percent, sliding sharply after The New York Times reported about the F.D.A. filings." He followed up the next day with another report on the consequences of his own reporting: "Safety Becomes a Concern With High-Caffeine Drinks." Three days later he was back with a news story arguing that "Reports on Energy Drinks Show Gaps in Safety Policy." Yesterday he gave us "Caffeinated Drink Cited in Reports of 13 Deaths," referring to 5-Hour Energy, a pick-me-up sold in two-ounce bottles that Meier says contain about 215 milligrams of caffeine each. By comparison, Meier says, "An eight-ounce cup of coffee, depending on how it is made, can contain from 100 to 150 milligrams of caffeine." So even according to Meier, a bottle of 5-Hour Energy contains no more caffeine than two cups of coffee, an amount that many Americans (including me, just now!) drink every day. In fact, America's 100 million or so coffee consumers drink, on average, three cups a day, meaning they regularly exceed the caffeine dose that Meier seems to think is dangerous.

Depending on the kind of coffee you drink and the method used to brew it, your caffeine intake may exceed the amount suggested by Meier's range. According to Energy Fiend, for instance, eight ounces of Starbucks coffee typically contains about 180 milligrams of caffeine and can range as high as 280 or so. Meier says his figure for the caffeine content of 5-Hour Energy comes from "a recent article published by Consumer Reports." According to a February 2011 Consumer Reports review of the product, "an October 2010 analysis by ConsumerLab.com, an independent group that conducts product evaluations, found that it contained about 207 milligrams of caffeine." Energy Fiend says that's the caffeine content of the "extra strength" version, while the regular version has 138. Another point of comparison: A tablet of maximum-strength No Doz (safe as coffee!) contains 200 milligrams of caffeine.

Yet Meier wants us to believe that 5-Hour Energy, unlike these older sources of caffeine, poses a deadly threat to consumers. "Since 2009," he writes, "5-Hour Energy has been mentioned in some 90 filings with the F.D.A., including more than 30 that involved serious or life-threatening injuries like heart attacks." That's two dozen or so reports a year, compared to hundreds for coffee, even though people probably are much more apt to attribute their symptoms to newer, less familiar products. And as Meier notes in the fourth paragraph (emphasis added):

The filing of an incident report with the F.D.A. does not mean that a product was responsible for a death or an injury or contributed in any way to it. Such reports can be fragmentary in nature and difficult to investigate.

That is not just a caveat you stick into a story that is otherwise aimed at stoking fear among consumers and prompting action by regulators and legislators. It is the sort of consideration that should lead a careful reporter (or a prudent editor) to reconsider the whole story.

Previous coverage of this incipient energy drink panic here and here.