Food Policy

Caffeine Jitters

Energy drink panic


Monster Beverage's stock price took a hit in October after The New York Times reported that the company's energy drinks had been "cited in deaths." The Times followed up the next day with a story headlined "Safety Becomes a Concern With High-Caffeine Drinks" and three days after that with one arguing that "Reports on Energy Drinks Show Gaps in Safety Policy."

The string of alarming reports, which were echoed by other news outlets, appeared the week after a Maryland couple filed a lawsuit implicating Monster's products in the death of their 14-year-old daughter, Anais Fournier. The stories, based on "adverse event" reports that the couple's lawyer obtained from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), exaggerated the risks associated with energy drinks by failing to put them in perspective.

Bloomberg News counted 37 reports involving Monster energy drinks, including six fatalities, since 2004—an average of about four a year. By comparison, the FDA receives thousands of such reports about aspirin each year and hundreds about coffee. And as Bloomberg noted (in the 12th paragraph of its story), "the claims…don't prove causation." They show only that someone experienced a symptom after consuming a product, not that the latter caused the former.

How does the caffeine content of Monster drinks compare to those of other widely consumed beverages? Most Monster varieties have 10 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce. That's more than twice as much as Mountain Dew (4.5 milligrams per ounce) but two-fifths less than drip coffee (about 18) and one-fifth as much as espresso (around 50). 

Fournier, who had a genetic disorder that may have affected her blood vessels, died of heart arrhythmia after drinking two 24-ounce cans of a Monster energy drink. Each of those cans contained 240 milligrams of caffeine, 90 fewer than a 16-ounce cup of Starbucks coffee.