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Is the Buzz Around Caffeine Drinks Bull?

Whenever I hear the claims of hyper-caffeinated beverages such as Red Bull, I always think they would sound better if shouted by carnival hucksters. Having whimsically-drawn cartoons saying a drink gives you "wings" just strikes me as a mealy-mouthed euphemism for a drug-induced rush.

Soft drink companies and, what I call "energy drink entrepreneurs," have gotten wise to this and have started to come up with hyperactive names such as "Enviga," "Cocaine," and "Bawls" to go with their products' hyperactive claims.

Hype attracts skeptics, and it was only a matter of time before the truth squading began. Red Bull recently attacked rival Redline, saying its slogan "Feel the Freak / Feel the Freeze / Watch the Fat Drop / Off with Ease!" is, well, bull. Redline returned the favor, saying Red Bull has nothing to back up its claims of improving performance, endurance and concentration.

Now, it's Enviga's turn. Enviga is a carbonated green tea beverage made by Coca-Cola and Nestle that will be sold nationwide starting early next year. A Coca-Cola press release for the drink suggests that downing three cans of Enviga can burn between 60 and 100 calories. The Center for Science in the Public Interest yesterday told Coca-Cola and Nestle it would sue if the companies kept using calorie-burning and weight-loss claims to sell Enviga.

(If you're curious, Coca-Cola said it based its pitch for Enviga on a study that recently picked apart.)

The reason beverage companies can get away with such claims is because the drinks themselves fall into a nebulously-regulated category called "functional foods," which are roughly defined as foods that make a health claim beyond basic nutrition. The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing its regulation of functional foods, starting with a hearing scheduled for today.

Though FDA officials have maintained that existing food and drug and FTC rules ensure functional foods are "safe and lawful," they say they're willing to hear what consumer groups and others have to say.

My favorite example of super-caffeinated drink marketing doesn't really fall under the category of potentially false advertising, however. It's more like cognitive dissonance with hilarious results.

Here it is, straight from a self-aggrandizing Q&A on the Web site for the energy drink Cocaine:

Other drinks contain high fructose corn syrup. Why not Cocaine? HFCS is not good for you. According to nutritionists your body has a difficult time converting this "sugar". Try to avoid drinks and food with HFCS. ...
There seems to be less crap in your drink than other energy drinks. Why? Because we only put into Cocaine what we thought was needed -- Nothing else.

I can see the billboard now: "Cocaine -- Made with only the finest ingredients."

What do you think the FDA should do? Clip some "wings" perhaps? Spill the beans here.

By Annys Shin |  December 5, 2006; 10:15 AM ET Consumer News
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Most of the stuff here seems to be based on buyer beware, or read the contact before you sign, or know what you are getting before you invest it. But this energy drink thing is something a bit different.
Red Bull is using the "Red Bull gives you wings" slogan under the guise that consumers are not dumb. You are not going to grow wings from drinking it. Nor is there any place on earth that you would find a red bull roaming a field.
So, do we call this false advertising? I believe that it is not necessarily "false advertising". This drink is markets towards adults and most adults know you don't grow wings.

The drink Cocaine on the other hand is pushing something more than just a drink. They are pushing a notion that Cocaine will have similar affects as the drug. Just reading the first 5 lines on their web site and you believe that this drink has some or most of the same properties.

Cocaine Energy Drink will not last very long. It is marketed to the younger generation who likes to spend their money on video games, Itunes and clothes, if they have any money at all.

As for FDA getting involved with what a product can and can't claim? What is the FDA for if they can't protect consumers from false claims. That is one of their missions and I say they should go after any food or drug that makes claims to the contrary of facts.

Posted by: Mike | December 5, 2006 10:59 AM

I never touch the stuff myself, so if other people want to put stuff like this in their body, good for them. It's their deathknoll, not mine. Why regulate it when I clearly have a choice of whether or not to consume it. Contrast this with hidden transfats and other additives that are not necessarily disclosed as ingredients in otherwise mundane looking take out food.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | December 5, 2006 11:23 AM

Keep the bleeping FDA out of this. They will only make it worse. Those products are pure and simple crap. So are those who buy them thinking they are getting some special boost. Caveat Emptor. Drink coffee and get the same effect.

Posted by: Steve | December 5, 2006 12:21 PM

Annys, you mention hyper-caffeinated but you never mentioned the slickest hyper-caffeinated beverage out there,

Posted by: Summer | December 5, 2006 12:25 PM

Dudes, if you don't know what goes into it, why put it in you? You are what you eat (and drink). I don't need the FDA to tell me that. The Surgeon General tells me that all the time.
Besides, energy comes from healthy eating and exercise, not from a can or a pill.


Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 5, 2006 12:58 PM

All I know is that when I am in serious need of a burst of afternoon energy, half a red bull does the trick. Ask my coworkers...

Posted by: GetRidofFDA | December 5, 2006 1:17 PM

A brisk walk around the block, some jumping jacks, or a 5 minute cat nap could give you the same energy pick-me-up as do these drinks. But, freedom of choice is a glorius thing.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | December 5, 2006 1:46 PM

All this stuff is really crap (just like diet pills, carb blockers, 'fat melters'). If people want to waste their money on it and fill the pockets of the manufacturers, more power to them. It seems this stuff is all sugar and caffeine -- a giant cup of espresso would do the same thing. I'd be concerned for people sensitive to caffeine and those ADHD kids who might become more uncontrollable after getting hooked on this stuff. I've been caffeine-free for about 18 months now and haven't felt better but the monster headaches going off caffeine were horrible.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | December 5, 2006 1:53 PM

I have to admit, against all my common sense, I kinda like some of the energy drinks.

But before I say anything about that, I should divulge my greater perception of these energy drinks.

Within my lifetime, the consumption of soda in this country has skyrocketed. When I was a kid, you could get the little 8oz bottles of coke anywhere, and then there were the 12 Oz cans and the 16 oz bottles. A typical "large" coke at a fast food restaurant was 16 oz.

Over time things changed, and soda sizes both bottled and fountain grew like stink on a hot day. For a long time you couldn't even find 16 oz bottles anymore, only 20 oz. (Recently there appears to be a growing resurgence of "shorty" bottles and cans, but they're more of a novelty than the norm).

"Large" sodas swelled until now the largest fountain drinks rival a whole 2-liter from the supermarket: The 7-11 Double Gulp is an example of this, and another, my personal favorite, was the largest size sold at Stop-n-Go convenience stores in Texas, called "The Hoss." Both were 64-oz Titans. Compare them with a 2-litre bottle, which is 67.7 oz.

This unchecked growth had to stop sometime, and I believe, though I have no proof to back this up, that the soda companies began to detect a leveling off of the market coinciding with the saturation of the American soda market. Both figuratively and literally, as Americans reached the physical limit of how much carbonated beverage they could reasonably consume and still function.

How, thought these soda companies, can we continue to generate more and more profit?

The answer was simple: Affect what is basically a soda-oriented stock split. Go back down to square one, 8 oz, but do it with a new product for which people are willing to pay many more times the unit price, over the previous virtually identical products.

Think, the average can of Red bull is 8.3 oz. and is (or at least was) $2. Average bottle of Mountain Dew is 20 oz. and $1. That's almost 25 cents per oz, compared with 5 cents per oz, close to a 5:1 split.

The question is, how much more is the unit PRODUCTION cost per oz for Red Bull? I do not know the answer, but I'd bet it's something along the lines of "Not Much." Or at least nowhere near five times the cost of Mountain Dew. can you sell such a product? I mean, that's kind of like introducing a new cereal that costs $20 per regular sized box. Better be some DAMN good cereal.

Answer: finely tuned product packaging and marketing.

First, put the soda in small cans, which has a couple of effects. It lessens (or at least misdirects) the impact of the hugely increased unit price. This is because most people think in terms of whole units before unit cost, especially with things you "grab" without paying attention like sodas as a convenience store.

That is, say you are choosing between two sodas, and you have a 8 oz Red Bull that cost $2 in one hand and a 20 oz Mountiain Dew that cost $1 in the other. Chances are your unconscious perception will be that you have one Red Bull and one Mountain Dew, and the one is just $1 more than the other. Your subconsious, even if it does notice, will generally not emphasize the difference in size, giving the Red bull a fighting chance.

But if you had a 20 Oz Mountain Dew at $1 in one hand and a 20 Oz red Bull costing $5 in the other, you'd be much less likely to go with the Red Bull, since then its obviouos that it's five times the price of Mountain Dew.

The small can also implies that its contents are more precious. Valuable things come in small packages, after all. You don't see people lugging around 20 oz bottles of Clive Christian perfumes (not at over $2,000 per oz, in any case).

Packaging only goes so far though, and isn't enough to completely balance out or overcome the drawback of a five fold price increase. They closed the last of the gap by making the new sodas "functional." They added some exotic-sounding nutrients (or "nutrients" in some cases), jacked up the caffeine, and hey presto, they had a versatile new procuct poised to take a number of different markets by storm.

One of these was the upper-end party crowd. Red Bull and vodka was a big fad in high-cover nightclubs for a long time, apparently because it mixed well--and don't even try to tell me that the makers of Red Bull didn't check that out first--and the stimulant allowed for longer partying).

Also in the midst of growing public concern with health and longevity, the new sodas touted all kinds of different things that were supposed to be good for our brains and bodies and if consumed would generally allow us to run 3 minute miles and solve Fermat's Last Theorem and never age.

I have to hand it to the soda companies, is has been a genius piece of work, creating this completely new market enabling them to charge five time the price for a 100-year-old product. Kudos to them.

Now, to return to my very first point, I will have to admit that, even believing in all the above, I have sampled quite a number of the energy drinks, and have found them to have wildly varying effects on me. Some do nothing (like Amp from Mountain Dew doesn't seem to do much of anything), some feel just like coffee, some have adverse side effect (SoBe Adrenalin Rush makes me twitchy, and gives my muscular tics) and one or two produce actually good results. The one I like the most is Energy, from Hansen. Every time I have one of those, I seem to have a positive increase in both mental energy and mood.

In any case, given all those different chemicals and enzymes, I think it would beneficial for the FDA to take a closer look at these beverages.

Posted by: Will Seabrook | December 5, 2006 2:00 PM

Will, you wrote a book and then you answered the question in the last line. I don't think Annys was asking for a history lesson. You must have had an Energy just before writing that piece of work. It would have been easier to say "Given all the ingredients that goes into these drinks, maybe FDA regulation to an extent or at least some review is necessary".

Anyhow, thanks for the history lesson.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 5, 2006 2:23 PM

The claims of those energy drinks should fall under the rhetorical hyperbole category. Regulation is not necessary, as nobody could take them seriously. I don't want my tax dollars paying the salary of an FDA regulator whose job is to observe test subjects to see if they do, in fact, "grow wings." Sheesh.

Posted by: lawgirl | December 5, 2006 2:24 PM


The FDA is there to protect you. Did you not here about the crack down on imported foods in New York. Seems they were bringing in exotic foods that could potentially carry harmful bacteria. You want that on your dinner table? The FDA caught a bunch of markets trying to sell this outlawed stuff. The FDA has many hats. I agree, however that it is a waste of time and money to have the FDA test a product to see if it lives up to the claims of it's ad campaign. Let the consumer decide for themselves.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 5, 2006 2:32 PM


Maybe it was a history lesson but Will's post was actually just as, if not more, interesting than the original article.

The FDA won't get involved until one of these products is prominently touted in the next Jackass movie.

Posted by: Vic | December 5, 2006 2:41 PM

I don't object to the FDA regulating the actual contents of these beverages to ensure they are safe for consumption. I was only addressing the advertising claims.

The funny thing is, the FDA does not do a lot of regulation in some health-sensitive areas. For example, there is little regulation of vitamins and dietary supplements. Too much of certain types of vitamins can be harmful or even deadly. Further, a lot of vitamins and dietary supplements interact with certain medications. Yet there is not much FDA regulation of the vitamin industry.

Similarly, when ephedra was banned, there was a black market for ephedra products. Actually, I shouldn't call it a black market, because it was available everywhere, and the FDA made no significant effort to enforce the ban.

I think the FDA needs to prioritize what is most important and work on that first.

Posted by: lawgirl | December 5, 2006 2:45 PM

This article fails to mention the energy drink "Red Balls". Has anyone out there tried this?

Posted by: Tyrone | December 5, 2006 2:56 PM

We are on the same page Lawgirl. Regulate the product contents, not the ad campaign.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 5, 2006 3:08 PM

Glad Lawgirl mentioned vitamins and supplements. My sister has a genetic condition called 'hemochromatosis' which is iron overload. Iron builds up in her body and causes lots of symptoms and damage -- extreme fatigue, depression, arthritis, liver and pancreas problems, early heart attacks, infertility and impotence. Blood tests for iron overload are not routinely done and patients should ask specifically for them. I carry the hemochromatosis gene but did not develop the disease. When discovered her iron levels were 4 times the normal amount; treatment is regular phlebotomy and she has had nearly 70 pints drawn to bring her iron back to normal levels. People with iron overload often think they are anemic and start loading up on iron supplements which is actually poisoning them. Before anybody starts taking supplements, they should check with their doctor.

I had a friend who started taking massive doses of Vitamin A for some reason and it nearly killed her.

Folks, too much of anything is NOT good for you.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | December 5, 2006 3:54 PM

Too much calcium can also kill you, even though virtually all women over the age of 18 are urged to take supplements to prevent osteoperosis, and most OTC antacids contain 50-60 percent of the daily recommended amount.

Posted by: lawgirl | December 5, 2006 4:08 PM

Thank you, Will. I enjoyed your thoughtful business analysis of the industry's marketing and cost/benefit strategies. Wish more people practiced such critical thinking methods :-)

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | December 5, 2006 4:20 PM

I also found Will's analysis informative. I have never tried one of the energy drinks because I could see that they were "junk". Sadly, my younger cousin (age 20), whose father owns a few Golds Gym franchises, spends lots of time working out and yet drinks *several* of these drinks per day. Too bad his parents simply pay no attention to what's in them. He thinks they are "good" for him and his grandmother thought they were, too. Unfortunately, very few consumers pay attention to ingredients. Parents constantly think they are doing the "best" for their kids, but it amazes me what they will buy and stock in the fridge.

Posted by: Juliette | December 5, 2006 4:27 PM

Another consideration is that people often mix energy drinks with alcohol -- Red Bull and vodka, Red Bull and Llaegermeister, etc. The idea is to counteract the sleepy feeling of drunkenness, and to be drunk and alert at the same time.

I worry about people doing this because a) not much is known about the ingredients in energy drinks and who knows what mixing them with alcohol could do; and b) people might think they are "alert" enough to drive after drinking these concoctions.

Posted by: lawgirl | December 5, 2006 4:53 PM

i used to drink one of these before hockey games a few years ago, but i found that it only turned me into a jittery, angry person. i got into more verbal battles than ever before, and i didn't play any better.

now, i just drink water or 1/2 water, 1/2 gatorade. and i also now know that these things only give you sugar and caffeine which will never increase your athletic performance. too bad advertising is about selling stuff and not about educating you, because sometimes i just don't feel like gathering all the information.

Posted by: kate | December 5, 2006 4:55 PM

Ms. Shin,

When are you or any reporter who writes commentary on a product going to take the product before engaging your lips or pen so you have something useful to say other than the regurgitation of rhetorical nonsence. Have you ever tried Redline? Are you aware that the claims made by Redline are backed up by cops who beat all other cops, firemen, military personell and 911 responders in the entire country and won $5000 dollars by losing 127 pounds of fat in 12 weeks? Let's keep it real Annys-call and visit the compnay, try the drink and then do a real report.

Posted by: Bio Liquid 7 | December 7, 2006 8:03 PM

I am sure the FDA is aware of what goes in the drinks. The issue seems to be more complex that just "being not regulated". Annys, i think you should dig deeper into this and i am sure you will get a "story".

Posted by: Kaustubh | December 9, 2006 6:43 PM

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