“Everybody thought Red Bull was the peak of caffeine in energy drinks,” said Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency physician in Lexington, Ky., who said he saw patients, especially around finals weeks at local colleges, come in complaining about feeling anxious and experiencing racing heartbeats after consuming too much caffeine. “Now, some of these drinks have two or three times the level of caffeine as Red Bull.”
Studies have shown that consuming caffeine may have health benefits, but that too much could result in cardiovascular and gastric issues. The Food and Drug Administration has investigated a handful of reports over the years involving people dying shortly after consuming energy drinks or five-hour energy shots. But the agency has never established a link between the two, a spokesman for the F.D.A. said in a response to emailed questions.
Adults are recommended to have no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. Pediatricians recommend that youths ages 12 to 18 should not consume more than 100 milligrams of caffeine per day and that children under 12 should avoid caffeine completely.
Over the years, there have been efforts to increase government regulation of energy drinks and limit the caffeine allowed in beverages. Lawmakers in several states, including Indiana and Connecticut, have considered banning the sale of energy drinks to minors. But the industry has successfully pushed back, in part by arguing that young people can get caffeine from myriad sources, including soda and coffee. A 16-ounce cinnamon-caramel-cream cold brew from Starbucks, for instance, contains 265 milligrams of caffeine (not to mention 260 calories).
About a decade ago, the energy drink industry, through its lobbying arm, the American Beverage Association, voluntarily adopted a set of principles, including labeling the amount of caffeine in products and noting on packaging that the beverages were not recommended for children. The industry also agreed not to sell or market its products in schools.
But critics say some energy drinks are clearly marketed toward younger customers. Last year, the consumer advocacy group Truth in Advertising said companies like C4 Energy, which sells drinks in flavors like Starburst and Skittles, and Ghost Energy, which sells Sour Patch Kids and Swedish Fish-flavored drinks that contain more caffeine than two cups of coffee, were trying to appeal to minors.
Dan Lourenco, the chief executive and co-founder of Ghost, said in an email that the company’s products were geared toward millennials seeking the nostalgic flavors of their youth. C4 Energy, which is owned by Nutrabolt, did not respond to an email seeking comment.