Staff Sgt. Kevin Harrell of 441st Ordnance Battalion (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), sips an energy drink Sept. 25 during a break from Operation Unified Endeavor at the Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany. (Pfc. Jennifer Kennemer / 16th Mobile Public Affair)
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In the wake of a government report that emergency room visits from energy drink consumption doubled in the U.S. from 2007 to 2011, three lawmakers are pressing energy drink companies to reveal beverage ingredients, as well as any research that has been done on product safety.
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., wrote makers of popular drinks Monster, 5-hour Energy, Red Bull and 11 others for information on their products, including whether the companies believe the drinks are beverages or supplements, if they market them to children and how much caffeine is in a recommended serving size.
Many of the drinks in question list caffeine as an ingredient but don't specify how much.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a 24-ounce Monster beverage contains 240 mg of caffeine — more than a six-pack of Coke — and a 2-ounce 5-hour Energy shot has 207 mg, about three times the amount of a 1-ounce espresso.
The products also contain other stimulants, including guarana and green tea, which may contribute to overall caffeine amounts.
In a company statement issued Jan. 18, Monster Beverage said 8 billion cans of its product have been safely consumed worldwide since 2002. "The recent [report] is highly misleading and does not support any conclusion that energy drinks are unsafe for consumers," according to the statement. The company added that the report exaggerates the levels of caffeine in its products.
Durbin and Blumenthal have been pushing the Food and Drug Administration to require better labeling on the drinks and scrutinize them more closely.
Under current law, the FDA can regulate food products and supplements, but supplements have different requirements for listing ingredients and reporting medical events associated with consumption.
"The blurred distinction between supplements and conventional foods or beverages, combined with recent published reports by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and FDA … has led to significant consumer confusion and concern about safety," the lawmakers wrote.
In its Drug Abuse Warning Network newsletter Jan. 10, SAMHSA reported that the number of energy drink-related emergency room visits doubled from 10,068 visits in 2007 to 20,783 in 2011.
Of the 2011 total, nearly 60 percent involved energy drinks only. The rest of the patients had ingested drugs — alcohol, stimulants, marijuana or prescription drugs — along with the beverages.
The FDA has been investigating reports of 13 deaths and 92 medical events among those who consumed 5-hour Energy, and five deaths in conjunction with drinking Monster.
Energy drinks, and particularly 5-hour Energy, are immensely popular with troops. In a 2012 survey conducted at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., 87 percent of active-duty members reported regularly consuming energy drinks, with 41 percent saying they drank at least one a week.
Sales in military commissaries topped $14 million last year.
The Defense Department Human Performance Resource Center classifies energy drinks as a "moderate risk" supplement, defined as having a moderate likelihood of adverse effects and only a moderate potential for positive improvement.
Energy shots are the only food supplement the center classifies as "high risk," placing them in that category because there simply isn't enough available data to determine a specific recommendation.