Cleaner energy drinks?

Critics concerned drinks send wrong message to health food crowd

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects
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Despite government scrutiny over energy drink safety, sales of caffeine-fueled beverages continue to soar.   Now, brands are marketing to consumers well beyond cramming college students. They're reaching out to the health food crowd - and critics are concerned that it's sending the wrong message.

Artist Joseph Cavalieri was never big on using caffeine to help jump-start his day.

"I never drank any traditional energy drinks," he said.

Things changed when Cavalieri spotted this energy drink at the health food store.

"I liked the idea that it was totally organic," he said.

It's a trend that has consumers like Cavalieri buzzing: drinks that promise a "cleaner" burst of energy.  They tout things like "organic" ingredients and "all natural", sources of caffeine - minus artificial colors and flavors. 

Industry anaylyst Gary Hemphill says brands are responding to a growing thirst for healthy refreshment.

"Consumers are savvy today, they read labels and, they know what the ingredients are in the products they ingest," said Hemphill, who's with the Beverage Marketing Corporation.

Hemphill says this new breed of drinks has opened up the energy category to a whole new crowd.

"Up until now the real core energy drink consumer has tended to be younger, teen males," said Hemphill. "When you talk about health, it tends to be a concern or interest of, you know, somewhat older consumers."

Consumers, like 52-year-old Cavalieri, who now play a role in soaring energy drink sales.

"They're tasty, and they sort of make you feel good- good on different levels," said Cavalieri.

"It's a very clever marketing strategy to advertise these drinks as clean, healthy alternatives, but there's really no evidence to support that," said Steven Meredith, Ph.D., a behavioral pharmacologist with Johns Hopkins University.

Meredith says even though the caffeine comes from natural sources, like guarana and green tea, "Caffeine is caffeine, whether it's synthesized in a lab, or whether it's synthesized in nature. It's still going to have the same pharmacological effects when you consume it." 

In fact, many versions still pack a potent caffeine punch, putting them on the Food and Drug Administration's radar, just like their traditional counterparts.

"There's really no scientific foundation, that I'm aware of, that suggests that when you consume one of these types of clean energy drinks, you should feel any differently than when you're consuming a traditional energy drink," said Meredith.

Still, industry experts don't expect sales to slow anytime soon.

"The healthier energy drinks are likely to continue to grow because people want healthier refreshment," said Hemphill.

Cavalieri will help fuel that market, but he is cautious when craving a boost.

"I'm really sensitive to caffeine, so often I'll just drink half of the can," he said.

The FDA is currently conducting an open investigation into the safety of energy drinks and supplements, and told us it is has no official time frame for when things will wrap up.  

Meredith says if you choose to have "clean" energy drinks, look for labels that clearly display the total amount of caffeine per serving.  He says that way, you can monitor your daily consumption.  Meredith adds, for most healthy adults, that should be between 300 and 400 milligrams a day. 

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