Sen. Durbin Asks FDA to Take Action Against (High Caffeine) Energy Drinks

April 11, 2012

By Riëtte van Laack

In an April 3, 2012 letter to FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) requests that FDA take action against energy drinks containing “exceptionally high” levels of caffeine and other possibly stimulating substances such as guarana and ginseng. 

Caffeine is Generally Recognized as Safe (“GRAS”) for use in cola-type beverages at levels up to .02% – about 71mg in a 12 ounce beverage.  Sen. Durbin’s letter states that certain energy drinks contain 160 mg/16 oz. (not counting the caffeine from substances such as guarana). Based on a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Sen. Durbin maintains that energy drinks pose potentially serious health risks, and that the consumption of energy drinks has been linked to a 10-fold increase in emergency room visits between 2005-2009.  The letter further states that, due to the “glossy marketing tailored to youth,” the consumption of energy drinks by adolescents has increased significantly. 

Citing FDA’s Draft Guidance concerning the distinction between conventional foods in beverage form and liquid dietary supplements, Sen. Durbin asks that FDA investigate energy drinks and determine whether they are properly marketed as dietary supplements.  He further requests that FDA enforce its regulatory limit on caffeine levels in beverages that are not dietary supplements, and also address any potential safety concerns posed by ingredients other than caffeine (such as guarana and ginseng).

Sen. Durbin’s letter places particular emphasis on the marketing of energy drinks, both in terms of its potential impact on young consumers’ behavior, and its impact on the regulatory status of the drinks.  Perhaps not coincidentally, FDA also took notice of marketing practices in its recent actions against caffeinated alcoholic beverages (see here) and caffeinated “breathable foods” (see here).