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Energy Drinks: No Speed Limit

Monster Claims · Empty Promises · Marketing to Children

Regulatory loopholes allow energy-drink manufacturers to avoid the labeling requirements and caffeine limits that are set for traditional soft drinks. Although regulators are poised to rein in the industry, new rules might not get consumers any closer to understanding what exactly is in the can.

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In the beverage aisle or the cold-drink cooler of any grocery store, you’ll find shelves of energy drinks that claim to “increase concentration and improve reaction speed,” give you a “strong energy boost” and “help you get the job done.” You definitely will find energy drinks in convenience stores, too, where at least 70 percent of all energy-drink sales take place, according to Mintel, which is a market-research company. In the past year, energy drinks even started showing up in more-upscale shops, such as Starbucks, which introduced its own line of energy drinks in 2012.

You can’t escape energy drinks; they’re everywhere. Manufacturers have enjoyed double-digit growth over the past decade, and the industry is projected to grow to $10.7 billion in 2013.

However, all is not well in the industry. City, federal and state officials have called for investigations into the drinks’ safety and the companies’ marketing claims. This followed the release of Food and Drug Administration reports in November 2012 that potentially link five deaths to Monster (the best-selling energy-drink brand, according to Beverage Digest) and 13 deaths to 5-hour Energy (the top-selling energy-shot brand) between January 2004 and October 2012.

Three organizations that follow the industry tell Consumers Digest that regulations are coming, but none of the organizations would predict when the regulations will arrive. Furthermore, the organizations say the regulations won’t make energy drinks’ problems disappear anytime soon.

LEAPS AND BOUNDS. Without a doubt, the energy-drink industry is rampaging along like, well, a monster. Mintel says the industry was a $6.2 billion market in 2009, which means that it has increased by 52 percent in 4 years.

Manufacturers of energy drinks released 111 new energy drinks and energy shots in 2012, which was down from 152 in 2011 but up from 80 in 2010.

Not all of these products are meant to give consumers more energy. In the past 3 years, we’ve seen more anti-energy or relaxation drinks, which claim to help users to relieve stress and tension. Like energy drinks, which are meant to simulate stimulants, anti-energy drinks are often meant to simulate drugs such as marijuana. They contain ingredients, such as kava and valerian root, and the cans in some cases include pictures of marijuana leaves. The maker of anti-energy drink Drank, which replicates so-called purple drank (a recreational street drug that’s made of cough syrup, soft drinks and candy) was warned by FDA in 2010 that its use of melatonin, which is a hormone that’s used to regulate sleep, was unapproved for use in a food product. As a result, Drank now is marketed as a dietary supplement and is allowed to include melatonin.

We also have seen more drinks that are targeted at women and senior citizens. Other drinks claim to be packed with extra caffeine, natural ingredients and real fruit flavors, to be low in calories or carbohydrates, and to lack gluten or sugar.

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Most of this market frenzy comes from only a few companies, however. The top three sellers—Monster, Red Bull and Rockstar—made up 87 percent of the energy-drink market in 2012, according to Mintel. During the third quarter of 2012 alone, Monster released four new products and now has 30 total energy drinks. The new products are: Monster Zero Ultra, which is a low-calorie drink; Monster Cuba-Lima, which is supposed to taste like a nonalcoholic rum-cola-and-lime drink; and two products under its Dub line of energy drinks.

The product breadth reached the point where even category originator Red Bull, which hasn’t changed its formula since it made its debut in the United States in 1997, announced that it, too, would widen its product selection by adding three new flavors under the Editions name: Red (cranberry), Blue (blueberry) and Silver (lime).

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