“When you see Jordy drinking from a Red Bull can, there is only Red Bull in there,” said Jordy Smith's manager. Photo: ASP/Kirstin

“When you see Jordy drinking from a Red Bull can, there is only Red Bull in there,” said Jordy Smith's manager. Photo: ASP/Kirstin


The Inertia

In case you’ve missed it in the news, the last couple of months have been difficult for energy drink companies. Barry Meier at The New York Times has published a series of articles shedding light on the release of what the FDA calls “adverse event reports” that cite the possible involvement of Red Bull, Monster, and a host of other drinks in certain health problems and deaths over the last five to ten years. When The Times first published the information about Monster Beverage in October, the publicly traded company out of Corona, California took a 14-point plunge in the stock market; currently, it’s trading at just over half the price it started at in January. After nearly a week of daily FDA releases of adverse event reports, the grand total for the two brands that concern us in the surf industry is 40 reports for Monster, including five fatalities – and 21 reports for Red Bull. Rockstar and 5-Hour energy were also cited in the FDA releases, but as they have less prominence in the surfing world, I’ll leave them to the reader to investigate.

What does all this mean? And what the hell can we do to make sure that we aren’t mindlessly drinking beverages that might be bad for us? First, it helps to know the definition of an “adverse event report.” In a nutshell, it is a report issued by a certified medical practitioner stating that someone who has visited them with a health problem has also used the substance in question – in this case, an energy drink. That’s all.

“The existence of an adverse event report does not necessarily mean that the product identified in the report actually caused the adverse event,” says Shelly Burgess, the PR lady at the FDA who has apparently fielded questions from every reporter interested in energy drinks in the last couple of weeks. She was also kind enough to provide me with the event reports for Monster which cite a bevy of medical cases ranging from the rather benign “dizziness” all the way through vomiting, and eventually death. According to Burgess, the FDA is still examining what connections, if any, energy drinks have had to the cases in which they have surfaced.

The only thing certain at the moment is that no one has quite connected the dots. In 2009, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration actually reported over 13,000 emergency room visits associated with energy drinks. What’s more, the companies aren’t being forthcoming with information. Last week I contacted the marketing department at Monster. Unfortunately, no one has responded. Fortunately, I was also able to get the contact for Monster Energy’s former Director of Marketing, Vipe Desai, who has since left the company to found a sporting drink mix (as opposed to an energy drink) company called HDX Hydration Mix. Desai was more forthcoming.

“These companies formulate their drinks and use ingredients that are acceptable under what are known as Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) guidelines,” says Desai. “So I really don’t think any of these companies are intentionally trying to be deceptive or misdirect anyone about the safety of what they are putting into their drinks. What they are making is safe according to the research available at the time of their creation. But, as we all know, in the case of sweeteners like Aspartame, new research sometimes emerges years down the line showing that things might not be as safe as we once might have thought…I think whether the FDA does it or the companies do it, in the interest of transparency, the public should push for more information about what is in these drinks and their effects on human health surrounding the ingredients that are comprised in their proprietary energy blends.”

What is not helping consumer safety and understanding, said Desai, is the media focus on the caffeine content of the drinks. “If you base arguments (against energy drinks) solely on caffeine, you automatically draw Starbucks into the debate because people can then say ‘100 miligrams, okay that is just a little more caffeine than a cup of Starbucks coffee and that’s not hurting anyone.’ Okay, but a Starbucks coffee doesn’t have the proprietary energy blend made up of ingredients that may change the effect of caffeine found in energy drinks. That’s what is beneath the hood that might, in certain circumstances be harmful to some with pre-existing medical conditions, women who are pregnant or children, but there isn’t enough research to say yet. Perhaps there needs to be some research and deeper discussion on how these proprietary energy blends change or amplify the effects of caffeine. Either way, with the current reports coming from the FDA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) it appears more information and transparency from manufacturers of energy drinks will likely be made available so the public can be better informed and educated about energy drinks as a whole.”

So energy drinks are probably not all that bad for you, assuming you don’t have a heart condition, or other extenuating circumstances, and you are drinking them in moderation. There is, however, a deeper problem to all of this. These companies are selling a drink that has possible, but still unknown health risks to children. Monster and Red Bull have both used surf culture, among other action sport cultures, to gain access to the coveted youth market by sponsoring events and athletes like Mick Fanning, John Florence, Jordy Smith, Sally Fitzgibbons, Julian Wilson and Jamie O’Brien. They have done this as part of a larger paradigm shift, pioneered by Red Bull (and Coca-Cola before them) to sell carbonated sugar water as a brand instead of as a drink. To get an idea of what I mean, go to the Monster or Red Bull web sites and look for information about their actual drinks. Having trouble? That’s because they are not interested in selling you the drink itself, but the images that come with it. Images like Smith doing a Rodeo Flip or Florence getting barreled. This is youth marketing at its best, and more than a little cynical when you consider that many of the sponsored athletes often don’t drink the stuff.

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  • Ryan Brower

    great piece Tetsuhiko. i’ve been waiting for someone to bring all this FDA research to light within the surf industry.

    in regards to athletes actually drinking it, i had a couple young surfers a few years back when the energy drink companies were getting really big tell me, “are you kidding me, i don’t drink that shit” despite riding for one of the major energy drink companies. i think it’s mostly just one of those assumed things in the industry that no one talks about because it would reflect negatively. and of course anything negative is not allowed in the surf world.

    but it’s pretty evident that whatever is in them is not good for you and you’re right, we need more transparency and we as surfers and a surf industry must demand it so we can stop poisoning our athletes and kids

  • Sebastian

    Another great article Mr. Endo, thank for trying to raise awareness about this issue. I just wanted to point out that while the FDA is the one raising a possible red flag on energy drinks, we shouldn’t rely on them to preemptively protect the public health. They have a very spotty history and a very cosy relationship with big pharma, agriculture, and chemical industries. Their philosophy seems to be “assume something is safe until it proven otherwise”. For example, the FDA allows the toxic and corrosive chemical BVO (brominated vegetable oil – Google it) to be added to many sodas and sports drinks as an emulsifier. It’s also used as a flame retardant, gasoline additive, and agricultural fumigant among other things. Its use as a food additive is banned in over 100 countries including Japan and the EU.

    (Also, just as an aside, I’d be willing to bet that Slater doesn’t touch this crap.)

    • Bert

      The same for us in France, the AFSSA is suppposed to protect us, but now they have to prove the toxicity of products (without more yearly budget…) and they’re already caught in lobby troubles. For instance, GMO are more or less totally accepted now…

  • Sebastian

    Another great article Mr. Endo, thank for trying to raise awareness about this issue. I just wanted to point out that while the FDA is the one raising a possible red flag on energy drinks, we shouldn’t rely on them to preemptively protect the public health. They have a very spotty history and a very cosy relationship with big pharma, agriculture, and chemical industries. Their philosophy seems to be “assume something is safe until it proven otherwise”. For example, the FDA allows the toxic and corrosive chemical BVO (brominated vegetable oil – Google it) to be added to many sodas and sports drinks as an emulsifier. It’s also used as a flame retardant, gasoline additive, and agricultural fumigant among other things. Its use as a food additive is banned in over 100 countries including Japan and the EU.

    (Also, just as an aside, I’d be willing to bet that Slater doesn’t touch this crap.)

  • Sebastian

    Another great article Mr. Endo, thank for trying to raise awareness about this issue. I just wanted to point out that while the FDA is the one raising a possible red flag on energy drinks, we shouldn’t rely on them to preemptively protect the public health. They have a very spotty history and a very cosy relationship with big pharma, agriculture, and chemical industries. Their philosophy seems to be “assume something is safe until it proven otherwise”. For example, the FDA allows the toxic and corrosive chemical BVO (brominated vegetable oil – Google it) to be added to many sodas and sports drinks as an emulsifier. It’s also used as a flame retardant, gasoline additive, and agricultural fumigant among other things. Its use as a food additive is banned in over 100 countries including Japan and the EU.

    (Also, just as an aside, I’d be willing to bet that Slater doesn’t touch this crap.)

  • Sebastian

    Another great article Mr. Endo, thank for trying to raise awareness about this issue. I just wanted to point out that while the FDA is the one raising a possible red flag on energy drinks, we shouldn’t rely on them to preemptively protect the public health. They have a very spotty history and a very cosy relationship with big pharma, agriculture, and chemical industries. Their philosophy seems to be “assume something is safe until it proven otherwise”. For example, the FDA allows the toxic and corrosive chemical BVO (brominated vegetable oil – Google it) to be added to many sodas and sports drinks as an emulsifier. It’s also used as a flame retardant, gasoline additive, and agricultural fumigant among other things. Its use as a food additive is banned in over 100 countries including Japan and the EU.

    (Also, just as an aside, I’d be willing to bet that Slater doesn’t touch this crap.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/andy.french1 Andy French

    Great article. I think there are a few other things that need to be considered and brought up. For one, peoples misconception about the authoritative reach and capability for the FDA to intimately regulate what is in their jurisdiction. Their ability to do this is extremely limited and their budget continues to decline. Consumers can not simply sit back and rely on the government to protect everything that is in the marketplace – personal accountability seems to be a lost thought these days.

    I think what it comes down to is the consumers (yes, kids too) being educated and weary of what they are putting in their bodies. It is not the government, or even the industries (arguable) job to provide a 100% risk-free product; educated consumers who are looking for the best possible and most healthy energy drink will drive the market.

    That being said, the marketing arm and the visibility of athletes using the products raises a HUGE concern. To cite a non-surfing example, I used to work closely with a high level Olympic phenom swimmer who is endorsed by Subway – big $$. Well, he pays his assistants to grab him Quiznos because he hates the product, but they still pay him big money for his face. I’m sure this is not the only example just as I’m sure that energy drink companies provide water filled cans for the athletes. I’m not saying Jordy isn’t a red-bull drinker, from the words of his spokesperson, he absolutely is; but there is no question that the image of athletes protrayed is completely inflated to show the product in its best possible light.

    Like Sebastian mentioned, food companies get away with some shady stuff in their products and this article is more than necessary to get people to start putting the microscope on what they are putting in their bodies and what it will do long term.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andy.french1 Andy French

    Great article. I think there are a few other things that need to be considered and brought up. For one, peoples misconception about the authoritative reach and capability for the FDA to intimately regulate what is in their jurisdiction. Their ability to do this is extremely limited and their budget continues to decline. Consumers can not simply sit back and rely on the government to protect everything that is in the marketplace – personal accountability seems to be a lost thought these days.

    I think what it comes down to is the consumers (yes, kids too) being educated and weary of what they are putting in their bodies. It is not the government, or even the industries (arguable) job to provide a 100% risk-free product; educated consumers who are looking for the best possible and most healthy energy drink will drive the market.

    That being said, the marketing arm and the visibility of athletes using the products raises a HUGE concern. To cite a non-surfing example, I used to work closely with a high level Olympic phenom swimmer who is endorsed by Subway – big $$. Well, he pays his assistants to grab him Quiznos because he hates the product, but they still pay him big money for his face. I’m sure this is not the only example just as I’m sure that energy drink companies provide water filled cans for the athletes. I’m not saying Jordy isn’t a red-bull drinker, from the words of his spokesperson, he absolutely is; but there is no question that the image of athletes protrayed is completely inflated to show the product in its best possible light.

    Like Sebastian mentioned, food companies get away with some shady stuff in their products and this article is more than necessary to get people to start putting the microscope on what they are putting in their bodies and what it will do long term.

  • Nathania Johnson

    I understand people’s concern, but we should remember that people have adverse effects to *everything.* Yes it sucks that thousands go to the emergency room b/c of these drinks (likely pounding down too many at once), but thousands also go to the ER every year for food allergies, like peanuts, shellfish, etc. That doesn’t mean the food itself is to blame, but human biology has its idiosyncrasies across each individual body.

    Furthermore, there are millions who drink energy drinks everyday and don’t suffer any adverse effects.

    Making sure these drinks are safe is a good idea – but the hype over how dangerous they are is overstated – and usually these scandals are drummed up by a competing interest – in this case, perhaps the coffee industry or something like that.

    Lastly, surfing itself has its fair share of deaths, injuries and ER visits – doesn’t mean it should be outlawed.

    • Bert

      It’s about the precautionary approach, maybe. there are plenty of examples of products, drugs or else that were commercialized, without us being sure about the side effects, and years after, sometimes ten or twenty years after, you discover it was a really dangerous stuff…Most of the times, you also discover that those dangerous effects were known…If there is a possibility of dangerous effect, it shouldn’t be possible to make a business with it, and to earn money with a potentially dangerous product.

      Weapons are used without problem everyday by millions of people, but you won’t imagine a country selling them freely, would you?

      All right, I’m leaving…

  • bkh2o

    It would be interesting to find out how many of those adverse effects were prompted by drinking several cans worth of these drinks versus a one can consumption. Almost anything taken in “mega” dosages can have consequential side effects, drink a pot of coffee and if you’re not used to doing so, you may end up feeling like your heart is about to explode.

  • Ruth Priestly

    Wow, I have always felt that these had to be too good to be true. What a great read thank you so much for such an informative piece. I myself went on a health food kick not long ago and took all artificial ingredients out of my diet. I was able to locate a healthy and a natural energy drink. Can’t say enough good things about Thinq, but then again if you can avoid the unnatural boost good for you!

  • Johnathan Florence

    Who a foo’ gotta blow to get a comment posted on here?

  • Johnathan Florence

    Can you explain why Red Bull is so prominently featured in this article and in your Tweets Mr. Endo? The NY Times piece clearly indicates that Monster and 5 Hour Energy are the focus of the FDA at this time. Yet you go back and forth on Twitter with a bunch of people who seem to have a vendetta against Jamie O’Brien yabbering about Red Bull and this article has Red Bull all over it… yet the NY Times articles you cited barely mentions them in passing and indicated they are actually under more scrutiny than Monster and 5 Hour.

    Too much to ask for “surf journalistic” transparency Jack Nasty Face?

    • Tetsuhiko Endo

      Hi Johnathan, sorry for the late response. I think if you go back and check those tweets you will see that some other people were focussing on Red Bull, and, aside from responding to certain conjectures directly about the company, I tried to speak more about energy drinks in general. There is actually another NY times piece (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/business/fda-posts-injury-data-for-red-bull.html) that does talk specifically about Red Bull. It was published on the 16th of this month. Sorry it didn’t get a link. The reason I spoke directly with their athletes was because they were the ones that I had contact info for and so could reach out to on short notice. I think they also tend to show up because they have some of the deepest penetration in the surf world, so it makes them more pertinent, without diminishing the importance of Monster et al.

      I’m interested: Why are you defending Red Bull in particular but none of the other energy drink companies? Also, why do it with a baseless attack on my credibility?

      ted

  • Johnathan Florence

    Or will this be another “moderated” comment by the heroic, groundbreaking Huff Post of surf websites?

  • http://www.facebook.com/chuck.allison.18 Chuck Allison

    Think I’ll use this as a ‘topic of interest’ in my A/P class…….there is some possible ‘thinking’ points here, both the article and the comments…..we’ll see what the students have to say….

  • http://twitter.com/gutobrasil ET phone home

    Great article. Eyes open to energy drinks and “energy-drink-fueled-athletes”. Who is to blame?

  • Bert

    It sounds like energy drinks aren’t for children, and correct me if I’m wrong, but even the energy drinks’ brands are saying this…But then, why are they sponsoring children competitions?

    And more generally, what about the precautionary approach? In Europe, we tried to fight to have clear information before allowing those products in the markets, but now the rules are that countries have to prove the toxicity of a product…Get it?

    Consumers are helpless, and laws aren’t for them any more. The market has won this battle, it’s a free market, and freedom is the first of our principles, uh? As one guy said during the french revolution, liberalism is when all chickens are free in the chicken house…and the fox too…