Commentary

A legal performance-enhancing drink

Caffeine-loaded energy drinks, popular with high school athletes, largely unregulated

Updated: October 27, 2010, 12:33 PM ET
By Tom Farrey | E:60

WESTON, Fla. -- Jack Owoc likes to say of his company, "The wheel of innovation never stops," but the same is true of his industry. And in the middle of a sleepy business plaza on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale, inside a small room that's been turned into a lab, he is about to show how easy it is to make a performance-enhancing drug supplement.

The well-muscled CEO of VPX/Redline wears designer jeans and an untucked turquoise shirt, more casual dress than the white-coated techies who buzz around him. But he knows the drill, so he thrusts a tiny metal spoon into a white plastic jar filled to the rim with a chalky substance that looks like it could be baking soda, or cocaine.

"This is caffeine, from China," he says.

He taps the spoon so that a small chunk falls into a disposable tray on the table. That's the amount of caffeine, 35 milligrams, to be found in a 12-ounce can of Coke. Twice that amount is all the government allows any cola-like soda to contain, for health reasons.

His energy drink, Redline? Owoc presents a tray with 250 milligrams, for the 8-ounce bottle. The powder fills up the bottom of the tray, and has some stack to it.

And what about the most potent product on the market? He digs into the jar once, twice, three times, then says, "you're looking at that amount." Five hundred milligrams, the caffeine content in a 1-ounce bottle of 5150 Juice, which is so concentrated that it comes with a syringe and FAQ advice to dilute the liquid with water, milk or beer.

So what would prevent some wily entrepreneur from dumping more into an energy drink, in an attempt to gain a share in what has become a booming industry?

"No one would stop them," Owoc says. "It's kind of self-governing with the law."

The exercise with Owoc helps explain how the energy drink market has gone from zero to $7 billion in sales in little more than a decade. The ability to heap as much caffeine in a cold beverage as a manufacturer desires, and not play by the rules of sodas, has made the drinks popular, particularly among teen athletes looking for a boost.

The performance-enhancing drug that's not banned

Like his teammates on the Carl Junction (Mo.) High School football team, Dakota Sailor said he often used energy drinks before games. He bought them at a convenience store and downed them in the locker room. Sailor hasn't used them, though, since February when the 17-year-old lineman suffered a seizure after drinking two 16-ounce cans of NOS, which combined contained 520 milligrams of caffeine. His neurologist, Dr. Taylor Bear, concluded the drinks played a "primary role" in his life-threatening event.

[+] EnlargeDakota Sailor
Courtesy of Dakota SailorDakota Sailor, left, suffered a seizure and stopped breathing after he drank two energy drinks in February.

The NCAA bans the use of, and tests its athletes for, caffeine at high levels. But most state high school associations permit its unfettered use; Virginia is the lone exception, having passed emergency legislation in September that prohibits athletes from using energy drinks at games and practices. Among pro leagues and in the Olympics, there also are no regulations. The World Anti-Doping Agency had restricted the amount of caffeine that athletes could use until 2004, when it reversed its stance due to the drug's widespread use in society and the variability of reactions that caffeine has on individuals.

"There were so many caffeinated drinks around, they took it off the [banned] list," said Larry Bowers, chief scientist with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a WADA member.

Caffeine is now a WADA anomaly, a drug proven to be performance-enhancing that is not on the group's prohibited list. Studies show the stimulant can improve reaction time, promote endurance, and even enhance a soccer player's passing accuracy, according to a review of the scientific literature by Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. "Caffeine can improve sport performance but this is dependent upon various factors, including, but not limited to, the condition of the athlete, exercise (i.e. mode, intensity, duration) and dose of caffeine," the authors wrote. Most benefits accrue when caffeine is used by trained athletes in moderate, not high doses.

It's easy to lapse into the high-dose range with some of today's energy drinks. Red Bull was the first to the U.S. market in 1997, with an 8-ounce can that included 80 milligrams of caffeine. But since, cans have anywhere from doubled to quadrupled in size, with a growing list of manufacturers loading up the drinks with ever-higher concentrations of caffeine as well as herbal stimulants such as guarana and ginseng.

More than 130 energy drinks exceed the caffeine limits placed on sodas by the Food and Drug Administration, according to a 2008 study by Johns Hopkins University. They range from well-known brands such as Monster Energy, the volume leaders in sales, to super-potent upstarts such as Cocaine Energy Drink (280 milligrams in 8.3-ounce bottle).

"Many manufacturers are not subject to the prior caffeine limits by claiming that their new products fall under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which classifies products deriving from herbs and natural sources as dietary supplements rather than drugs," wrote the authors of the Hopkins study. "Other manufacturers appear to be ignoring the FDA caffeine limits and FDA has not enforced the limits."

ESPN entered the energy drink market in the U.S. last summer, in partnership with a California company. The X Games-branded drink is taurine-free and contains guarana, ginseng and caffeine, said Francisco Arenas, ESPN Senior Director of Consumer Products Licensing. Its 158 milligrams of caffeine in a 16-ounce can is comparable to that found in Monster Energy.

The Hopkins study led to a petition signed by 100 scientists and doctors asking the FDA for more regulation of energy drinks, citing the risks of caffeine intoxication. Those risks include insomnia, anxiety, tremors, heart palpitations and, in rare cases, seizures. In 2008, Australian researchers concluded that just one Red Bull can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke, even in young people, by making blood stickier.

"The individuals that could really get into trouble with them are young kids, because they're much more sensitive to the effects of caffeine," says Dr. Barbara Crouch, a toxicologist and director of the Utah Poison Control Center. "There's no reason that anyone needs to have an energy drink, especially a kid."

Still, energy drink companies target young athletes, with the aid of celebrity endorsers.

"I actually think it's fine," says James Stewart, a top motocross pro sponsored by Red Bull. "They understand that kids will be drinking it and … I'm sure it's kid-friendly. When I was a kid I had a lot of energy so maybe the parents might have something different to say about it, but I'm OK with it."

The door opens to regulation changes

In December, the FDA opened the door to regulating energy drinks more closely. The agency, in a guidance letter to the industry, registered its concern that some beverages are being marketed "as dietary supplements, in spite of the fact that the packaging and labeling of many liquid products represent the products as conventional foods." Energy drinks are not specifically mentioned in the letter, and no action has been taken so far, but the beverage firms are aware of the potential implications, says one industry lawyer.

"FDA would have a very easy way to shut down that whole thing by saying it's a drink, therefore it's a food, and you, Mr. Energy Drink, must live by those rules," says Deborah Shelton, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who represents beverage companies.

An FDA spokesman said the guidance letter is still in draft status, and there is no timeline when it might be finalized.

The American Beverage Association says it "supports the general goals behind" the draft guidance but objects to the "narrow interpretation" of the definition of conventional foods, among other concerns.

The beverage industry notes that many energy drink products have no more caffeine than a comparable serving of strong coffee. Coca-Cola, which owns NOS, declined multiple interview requests with E:60 but issued a statement, saying, "… the ingredients in our energy drinks are safe and suitable for use in the product. Energy drinks, like all food and beverage products, should be consumed responsibly and not to excess."

Owoc subscribes to that argument as well, with a caveat.

"The problem with kids is, if one is good, five is better," says Owoc, a former high school science teacher. "The mentality of the kid is you can play in traffic and not die."

So, Owoc has taken unusual steps to keep minors from his product. Most energy drinks say on the can, "Not recommended for children," leaving it up to teenagers to decide whether they are children; others, such as the 5-Hour Energy shot, advise that it not be used by those "under 12 years of age" (and thus, it's OK for Little Leaguers). Owoc's Redline, by contrast, states on the bottle that it's not intended for use by anyone younger than 18.

He even calls for government help in keeping energy drinks out of adolescent hands.

"Convenience stores are used to the fact that you can't sell cigarettes, you can't sell alcohol, so let's just lump energy drinks in with that and say you can't sell energy drinks to minors," he says.

Beats being told by the feds how much caffeine he can put into his drinks, Owoc figures.

Otherwise, his prized wheel of innovation could get stuck in a pothole.

Tom Farrey is an ESPN correspondent who can be reached at tom.farrey@espn.com. Producer Al Kahwaty also contributed to this piece.

Tom Farrey | email

Writer, Reporter