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.