As appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.
An open letter about the need for greater awareness of caffeine levels in energy drinks may come off as hypocritical from the co-founder of a functional and energy drink brand. But I’m also a father to two teenagers who, along with their friends, can easily have too much of any energy drink — drinks that are sold everywhere and marketed to younger consumers. It was important for me personally and professionally to go on the record.
When Red Bull® launched a generation ago, the brand introduced us to a new kind of beverage: the energy drink. Other brands have since followed suit, including LIFEAID Beverage Co., the beverage line I co-founded with Orion Melehan in Santa Cruz, California.
We’re proud of our success but aware of our social responsibilities as marketers of these functional and energy drinks.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that kids between the ages of 12 and 18 should not consume more than 100 milligrams of caffeine per day. The average cup of coffee contains around 90-120 milligrams of caffeine. But many of today’s energy and “pre-workout” drinks contain as much as 300 milligrams of caffeine in a single can. Unfortunately, many teens are consuming not one but multiple of these types of drinks daily. And we’re just talking about the concern of caffeine levels in these drinks. Some brands use sweeteners like sucralose, which is under scrutiny for its impact on gut health.
Teenagers may act more adult-like at a younger age than my generation did, but that doesn’t change how an overload of caffeine and sweeteners negatively affects a teenage body and nervous system. And this digitally native generation — one that struggles with the overuse of cell phones and gaming — probably won’t stop with a single, amped-up energy drink. They’ll have one to kick start the day, another to get through it, and possibly a third to be alert to do their homework, play in afterschool sports, hit the gym or play video games all night.
It’s a bigger problem than most parents realize. Teenagers alone consume over $16 billion worth of energy drinks annually (as of 2016). And the only direction that $16 billion figure will go this year and next, is up.
Not enough regulation is in place.
The Food & Drug Administration enforces a 71 milligram limit on the amount of caffeine that may be added to a 12 ounce soda. Yet, energy drinks are not held to the same standard – and right now, no limits are imposed by the FDA. The effects of that lack of regulation are evident. A 2018 study from Chapman University showed that 40 percent of teens ages 13-19 reported an adverse effect from drinking energy beverages. Among the list of symptoms: insomnia, heart palpitations, abdominal pain, headaches and of course, feeling “jittery.”
As the president of LIFEAID Beverage Co., I take all this very seriously, especially when we as a brand formulate our products. The “most caffeinated” drink we sell tops out at 100mg of caffeine. And we don’t market to teenagers. As the father of two, I take all this even more seriously and teach my kids not just about healthy eating — and the pleasure of the occasional junk food treat — but about understanding the nutritional facts of everything they eat and drink.
As beverage marketers, what can we do to be more responsible? Some urgent suggestions, below.
- Make recommended daily consumption guidelines clearer across every platform we have.
- Formulate with safety for everyone — teens and adults -in mind. People don’t need more than 100mg of caffeine in a single drink.
- I remind everyone in my work and personal life about the importance of moderation, every day. We produce drinks that serve a functional purpose and those drinks shouldn’t be misused.
- Continue to educate about moderation and usage. It’s not enough to say it once or even a hundred times.
- Demand changes from the beverage companies, including lower levels of caffeine per drink, in line with established consumption guidelines, including age specific guidelines, on every can.
As a parent, it’s easy to finger point and demand change from companies and regulatory agencies. As a successful beverage brand it’s easy to hide behind the lack of regulatory control and profits that result from sales of these types of potentially harmful beverages. And as a teenager, it’s easy to lean on being young and not caring today, with the intent of caring more about your body and health “tomorrow.” But the truth is, we all have to do our part to keep our kids safe and help them make the best, most-informed choices they can.