Volume 4  Number 4  June 28, 2007
Second Opinions

Power and Energy Drinks: Happy Juice and the Buzz Factor

Hat's off to Canada

In 2003 and again in late 2005 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reported that 71% of sports nutrition products on sale violate regulations. Previously the agency tested 165 sports nutrition and fortified food products on sale in Canadian retail stores and found that 117 violated composition, nutritional information or labeling requirements. The expected results were concerted attacks and complaints by industry on the agency's scientific methods. Nestlé Canada, however, the maker of Powerbar®, which was found to comply with regulations, has spoken out in support of CFIA's initiative, saying that it will "rid the marketplace of products with illegal ingredients and claims".

Despite public reassurances, the inspectors saw fit to detain or destroy a total of 15 failing products, the identity of which has not been disclosed. In the majority of cases, non-compliance with Canadian regulations was due to labeling issues, especially in products imported from the United States. In this country, the Dietary Supplement Act of 1994 has overridden FDA pre-marketing responsibility for the safety of food and drugs. No longer would the FDA even regulate advertising claims, which became the purview of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). As long as these products did not claim to treat or prevent disease, manufacturers could claim their diet supplements in any food or drink, enhanced performance, "energized," controlled appetite, accelerated fat loss, relieved pain, "detoxified," in short use their imagination to make virtually any fanciful claim.

Products and the Market

Does $18 billion a year for power drinks sound enticing? It hardly compares with the $70 billion a year soft drink market. Yet this previously expanding market has been hurt by linkage of carbonated sodas to obesity. Makers like Coca Cola who just took a $4 billion step away from carbonation by purchasing Glaceau, the maker of vitamin water, are upgrading to new and ever more intensely promoted voodoo health drinks, e.g. Coke with Diet Coke Plus®, Full Throttle®, Pepsico with Tava®, Nestlé and Coke with Envige®, and Anheuser Busch, makers of Low Calorie 180 Blue® with Açaí "which uses only the highest quality ingredients, including carbonated water, vitamins B6, B12, C , ...A serving of açaí berries has 80% RDA of antioxidants and it is said to contain 33 times more antioxidants than red wine grape." And don't forget the beer-maker's 180 Red with Goji "...contains one of the most nutritionally-rich fruit on the planet, the Goji berry. With high antioxidant levels, Goji berries help in fortifying the immune system and contain 18 kinds of amino acids, up to 21 trace minerals and vitamins B1, B2, B6, and E." By the way, you can buy pure Himalayan Goji berry juice direct off the Internet, now selling for $11-$30 a quart by your favorite distributor, Doctor's Best , Doctor's Trust, Dynamic Health, Flora, et al. Literally hundreds of sports and power beverages adorn the soft drink aisles of your favorite supermarket: Max Velocity, Rockstar®, Monster, Sobe No Fear®, Red Bull® among others, most with various vitamins, minerals, amino acids (taurine, carnitine, arginine,) caffeine, and ginseng or other herbals, of which many I have not heard. Retail prices are steep with Monster at $1.99 for 16 oz., Max Velocity® at $1.49 for 8 oz, and Red Bull® at $1.99 for 8.3 oz.. It reminds me of the cost of upscale bottled water in the range of $3.00 or more per gallon. And we complain about the cost of gasoline! (Think how much money you throw out every week in a country where municipal tap water is almost invariably superior and safer than the bottled product.)

And in This corner: The Buzz Factor

Last January, Anheuser Busch rolled out a new product, Spykes, in two-ounce bottles in flavors like mango, lime, lemon, and chocolate. First there was Disney's Champagne for Kids. However, unlike the kiddie Champagne that was "just for pretend," Anheuser-Busch's new Spykes has real alcohol - it's a "premium malt beverage" with a 12% alcohol content. This has raised a lot of temperatures to the boiling point. The reason? People are worried that Spykes is aimed at teens, particularly during Prom and graduation season. Not only does the sweet drink arrive in nice flavors but it also comes in a tiny bottle that's easily pocketed and therefore hidden from a parent's or chaperone's watchful eye. Even though Spykes can only be sold in liquor stores the authorities are worried about reckless marketing to teens. It's meant to be drunk straight or used as a mixer with beer or a cocktail. According to the new brand's web site, "It's whatever you want it to be."

Still, as Francine Katz, Anheuser Busch's VP for consumer affairs, observes there's nothing new about Spykes. Hundreds of single serve alcoholic drinks in all different colors, flavors, and sizes have been around in liquor stores for decades. "There's an established category out there." All too true. Then what can you do about the marketing, some say, targeted to the teen age audience? You'd have to change the law, I suppose.

The Bottom Line on Power Drinks

On balance, the evidence suggests that power drinks are little more than juiced up voodoo beverages containing sugar, carbonated water, caffeine, and a variety of mineral and vitamin supplements, generally of minimal amount, marketed with glittery packaging and seductive names,. The only problem is the presence in many drinks of a variety of herbal compounds, ill-defined as to composition and quantity. Some, perhaps very few, are a health hazard, if consumed to excess. Yet it would certainly seem prudent to attempt deciphering the label before spending extravagantly for a can full of "power, health, and energy." If you want a lift, what's wrong with a cup of well-brewed coffee, or even a superannuated-read "plain"- Coke or Pepsi?

Martin F. Sturman, MD, FACP

Copyright 2007, Mathemedics, Inc.

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