Experts call for tighter labelling rules for energy drinks

Consumers are often clueless as to what they are drinking, scientists claim

Bolivian-born Alfredo Duran was working as a shelf stacker for British supermarket chain Asda Wal-Mart when he collapsed and died one evening in September 2006. An inquest in April this year revealed Duran may have consumed four cans of the popular energy drink Red Bull almost every night. Unbeknownst to him, Duran had an enlarged heart, a disorder that impaired its ability to pump blood around the body. The combination of these two factors may have contributed to his death, said pathologist Dr Ian Roberts at the inquest.

While a post-mortem showed there was not enough caffeine in Duran's body to be fatal under normal circumstances, Roberts said. "For an individual with this condition, the risk of problems with the heart is increased by stimulants such as caffeine, and may be triggered by levels which would have no effect on people with a normal heart. My feeling is — given the available evidence — it was a cardiac arrest possibly contributed to by subtoxic caffeine ingestion."

The verdict returned was death by natural causes, with the coroner stating, "We were not able to say in this case that the caffeine was definitely high enough to have caused his heart attack."

And, in the wake of the inquest, the makers of Red Bull pointed out, "No one anywhere has ever shown any link between Red Bull energy drink and harmful effects."

Nonetheless, many remain concerned about the levels of caffeine that people may be unknowingly consuming.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are calling for many of the caffeinated energy drinks on the market to carry prominent labels that note caffeine doses, and warn of potential health risks for consumers.

"The caffeine content of energy drinks varies over a 10-fold range, with some containing the equivalent of 14 cans of Coca-Cola," said Roland Griffiths, one of the authors of an article that appeared in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. "Yet the caffeine amounts are often unlabelled and few include warnings about the potential health risks of caffeine intoxication."

Some drinks contain the caffeine equivalent of 14 cans of Coca-Cola
Without adequate, prominent labelling, consumers most likely wouldn't realise whether they were getting a little or a lot of caffeine, said Griffiths, who added, "It's like drinking a serving of an alcoholic beverage and not knowing if its beer or scotch."

"It's notable that over-the-counter caffeine-containing products require warning labels, yet energy drinks do not," said Chad Reissig, another of the study's authors.

Despite the negative press surrounding energy drinks, they have never been more popular. Sales have risen by 400 per cent in the US since 2003 to a value of $4.8 billion now, according to Mintel's latest report. And the industry insists its products are safe. In a statement responding to the Johns Hopkins paper, the American Beverage Association said, "Our companies meet all government labelling regulations. Consumers can easily find out how much caffeine is in a beverage by calling the company's 1-800 number or visiting its website. In addition, some of our member companies voluntarily list the amount of caffeine directly on a product's label. Quite simply, energy drinks can be part of a balanced lifestyle when consumed sensibly."

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