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Health & Wellness

Should You Shun Energy Drinks?

Deaths possibly linked to two brands


The popular caffeinated 5-Hour Energy drink now has another, tragic number associated with it. As required by federal law, its distributor recently reported the caffeinated beverage’s possible involvement in 13 deaths. While the Food and Drug Administration is investigating, should BU students bypass 5-Hour Energy drinks available for purchase in University food stores?

“There is absolutely no need to reach for any of these products for energy,” declares Joan Salge Blake (SAR’84), a Sargent College clinical associate professor. Food provides ample energy for the body, she says.

The director of BU’s Student Health Services echoes her opinion. Any product promising energy that’s “not naturally achieved” through sleep and diet “just seems not to be a great idea,” cautions David McBride. Even students who overdo their coffee drinking—a familiar sight to his staff during final exams, he says—can “mess up their sleep schedule. They’re basically pushing their bodies beyond what would be considered normal and healthy.”

And unlike energy drinks, says Salge Blake, “coffee, because it’s served hot, is typically consumed more slowly than gulping a shot or energy drink. Thus, coffee consumption is less likely to cause a person to overconsume caffeine.”

In October, the Food and Drug Administration said it had received reports of five deaths possibly linked to another drink, Monster Energy. Such incidents, according to the New York Times, are not confirmations that the drinks indeed caused the deaths. The FDA insists that the science is insufficient at this point to justify stiffer regulations of caffeine or other energy drink ingredients. But U.S. Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have called on the FDA to act quickly to regulate energy drinks that are marketed as beverages.

The ingredients in energy drinks, Salge Blake says, can include guarana (a caffeine-containing plant) and taurine, an amino acid that can act as a stimulant and is found in 5-Hour Energy. And another key ingredient: “Collectively, soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks are the number one source of added sugars in the diets of Americans,” she says. “Even more concerning, these beverages are displacing more nutrient-rich ones, such as bone-strengthening nonfat milk or sugar-free plain water.”

Elizabeth Hatch, a School of Public Health professor of epidemiology, has researched caffeine and fertility (although not caffeine toxicity) and wonders whether there might be other factors involved in the deaths, such as drugs and alcohol, as the amount of caffeine in 5-Hour Energy reported in the Times “is not all that much—about the same amount of caffeine as in two strong cups of coffee.”

But Salge Blake says that using energy drinks in tandem with other caffeine sources can overcaffeinate a person, potentially causing “jitters, anxiety, a rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, seizures, and even death. There have been reports of middle school–age consumers who had to be taken to a hospital with many of the above symptoms and a teenager who even died after consuming multiple servings of an energy drink.” More than 45 percent of reported caffeine overdoses occur in people 19 or younger, she says.

While the FDA already restricts caffeine levels in soft drinks, Salge Blake says, energy drinks and shots (the term with which 5-Hour Energy’s manufacturer labels the product) are deemed diet supplements by law and go unregulated.

Bottom line: the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) warns that “if you drink more than a couple of cups of coffee or several cans of caffeine-containing soda per day and experience insomnia or jitters, are at risk of osteoporosis, or are pregnant, you should rethink your habit.” Or as Salge Blake more succinctly puts it, “Moderation is key.”

Things may get worse first: the CSPI is alarmed about possible caffeine ODs in kids from a soon-to-hit-the-market product: caffeinated Cracker Jacks.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

12 Comments on Should You Shun Energy Drinks?

  • Taylor Yates on 12.03.2012 at 2:43 am

    Well this is one biased article. How about quoting someone who realizes that normal, sane consumption (I’d say about under 10 “doses” of this terrible drug) has no side effects for normal people other than increased productivity, minor stomach pain, and jitters. Caffeine sensitive people, and they are aware of their condition, should not be drinking this in the first place. Basically, it’s like anyone else partaking in some of Mr. Jones’ “koolaid.” If you’ve never had caffeine before, use some sense and trying something less decaffeinated first, maybe a diet coke? This “tragic number” of people are just examples of Darwin’s theory in caffeinated action.

    • ME on 12.03.2012 at 1:57 pm

      Beyond the clear bias shown in this story, I have to ask: WHAT is the reason for making this a lead story at a large teaching and research university? And what in heaven’s name is the purpose of “should BU students bypass 5-Hour Energy drinks available for purchase in University food stores?”

      Does that somehow make the story relevant to Boston University? Are 5-Hour Energy drinks sold at BU stores different than those sold at CVS, grocery and convenience stores throughout the city, or elsewhere? Come on! It seems pretty premature to be writing about the POSSIBILITY that the death of 13 people MAY have been associated in SOME way with this product.

    • James Brown on 12.03.2012 at 8:00 pm

      Consuming an extreme amount of anything, including water, will kill you. So I agree that the odds of a sudden death from consuming a reasonable amount of nearly any product on the market will kill you (sans an alergy).

      However, I was taking this product once or twice a day for about a year. It turns out that it was causing painful, scaring cystic acne. About 10% of the population is sensitive to extremely high levels of B12, which was causing the acne.

      I think the general rule is to try and avoid consuming highly processed and unnatural products. God only knows what we’ll find out about high levels of guarine, taurine, and nutrasweet in 30 years. Why not just have a cup of coffee instead?

  • Liana on 12.03.2012 at 5:43 am

    People should be warned and educated on consumption, but they have a right to buy products from companies that have a right to sell those products. I’m writing this after consuming a V8 energy; regulating energy drinks makes as much sense as regulating assignments at BU because they cause my all-nighters, therefore forcing me to consume caffeine. Please. I chose to wait to do my work, I chose to stay up, I chose to purchase an energy drink. Don’t penalize the company for people who think it’s perfectly healthy to consume a Monster every hour of the day. It’s like the McDonalds lawsuit all over again.

  • Student on 12.03.2012 at 7:38 am

    “Even more concerning, these beverages are displacing more nutrient-rich ones, such as … sugar-free plain water.”

    Yum, SUGAR FREE WATER! Sounds nutritious. If you read into the deaths associated with these beverages, there are more often than not other contributing factors. If you dont replace a meal with 3 bottles of five hour energy, I think you probably are not at risk. Like everything else, always in moderation…

  • Zerin on 12.03.2012 at 9:22 am

    I thought it was hilarious when they said “distributor recently reported the caffeinated beverage’s possible involvement in 13 deaths.” I’m pretty sure more people have died from drinking water. People need to learn that anything over consumed is not healthy for us even products that are healthy for our diet. Lets not knock the companies and their products, but instead the consumers that are informed.

  • Chris on 12.03.2012 at 10:38 am

    As was stated before, everything in moderation (including moderation!?). If you consider the total amount of caffeine “users” to the amount of deaths caused by it, the numbers would be negligible. I don’t mean to trivialize anyone’s death, but statistically speaking, it’s quite unusual to die from caffeine overdoses.

    Like every over the counter drug or supplement, 5 hour energy also has a label which suggests dose size. If I buy psuedofed and decide to take more than what’s recommended, the sky’s the limit…

    Either way, there should be no reason to take 5-hour energy off the shelves, as adults should have the ability to use it properly/within their limits.

    Also, who else is excited for caffeinated cracker jacks!?! Oh my goodness…

  • XS Energy on 12.03.2012 at 11:00 am

    Thanks for the insight, get that energy drinks in tandem is the main source of risk. Any informations about the energy shot from Vitamin B12 in other energy drinks?

  • Jess on 12.03.2012 at 11:51 am

    If we want to solve the problem of reliance on sugary, caffeinated drink, maybe we should examine the stress culture on campus that leads people to use these drinks to get their work done and what’s causing them to eat less/fewer regular meals and not sleep. I mean, really. Especially during finals.

    • Tom on 12.03.2012 at 1:34 pm

      I sort of agree with Jess. Part of the problem is that some students don’t get the proper nutrients because they feel that they have no time to eat full meals when there’s studying to be done. I wouldn’t say that “stress culture” is the real issue though. School is hard so it causes stress. How you deal with stress is up to you. Evaluating the causes of stress probably won’t deter people from energy drinks. When I was at BU, I always had a 5-hour or two in my backpack. I’d drink one if I really needed to stay up. It worked, but it’s best in moderation. The energy you’ll experience after drinking a few in a short period might not feel natural and could keep you from getting work done. People just need to find out what works for them. Some people could get away with having half of one (resealable caps). Don’t overdo it, and avoid mixing with booze. Would be interesting to have an article with statements from BU students (the users).

  • Anonymous on 12.03.2012 at 1:39 pm

    100% of water-drinkers eventually die. Use water in moderation.

  • Jason on 12.04.2012 at 1:45 pm


    Some studies suggest coffee and caffeine is not as bad as you might think.

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