The NY Times reports on the growing skepticism regarding the benefits of various energy drinks. The latest article comes just two months after the NY Times reported on an official F.D.A. letter that suggests the F.D.A. is considering a proper scientific investigation—perhaps, one can hope, an evidence-based clinical study conducted by scientists whose research is not funded by some energy drink.
The latest NY Times article sounds incredibly familiar. It could be 1905 all over again, and Samuel H. Adams could be spearheading yet another muckraking campaign to topple the patent medicine industry.
Now, as then, makers of these elixirs make grand if vague promises:
… “Red Bull gives you wings,” that Rockstar Energy is “scientifically formulated” and Monster Energy is a “killer energy brew.”
A key ingredient in many energy drinks, taurine, apparently detoxifies. Another ingredient, glucuronolactone, must be good for humans because it makes rats swim better. To be sure, the caffeine and the sugar are both stimulants with a long history of verifiable effects. But in the end producers of these energy drinks don’t want to focus on any specific benefit from any particular ingredient. The benefits come from the “multifaceted functions” of the ingredients and “the product in its entirety,” “it is their proprietary formulas, rather than the specific ingredients, that provide users with physical and mental benefits.”
This line of marketing should sound familiar. The patent medicine industry in the 19th- and early 20th-centuries used similar techniques to sell alcohol disguised as medicine (on patent medicines, see this post and this one and this one and this one and this one). It would be amusing to update Samuel Adams’s diagram that showed alcohol content in patent medicines to show caffeine content in energy drinks.
Drip coffee from a convenience store costs less and has more caffeine than many energy drinks. For comparison, here are the amounts of caffeine in 16 ounces of common energy drinks (caffeine content taken from Energy Fiend and prices taken from local convenience store):
- Red Bull: 150 mg (9.5 mg/fl. oz), about 2.6¢/mg
- Monster Energy: 160 mg (10 mg/fl. oz), about 1.6¢/mg
- Starbuck’s coffee: 330 mg (≈20.6 mg/fl. oz), about 0.59¢/mg
- 5 Hour Energy: 1104 mg (69 mg/fl. oz), about 2.2¢/mg
In disturbingly familiar and equally vague terms, patent promised to restore lost energy and fatigue, along with calming nerves and improving concentration. Curing cancer and restoring thinning hair were just added benefits. Endless hours can be amusingly spent reading patent medicine marketing, especially if you substitute the name of your favorite energy drink for the patent medicine. Some timid examples include:
Dr. Miles’ Restorative Tonic promises: “A combination of Phosphates with Quinine and Iron. A bodybuilder for the weak who need strength, especially after sever sickness.”
Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters claims to restore vigor—“the ability to eat with apetite, to digest with thoroughness, to think clearly, to sleep soundly, to undergo moderate exertion without excessive fatigue”—and while it won’t “give you wings” at least will give you the strength to slay dragons.
Dr. King’s New Life Pills is both “a mild, painless laxative and restorer of lost strength and energy.” Lest the consumer not trust these claims, patent medicine companies enlisted the testimony of physicians and other experts.
Peruna turned to Dr. G. B. Crowe, “a physician and a very influential man in Alabama:”
Pe-ru-na is a most valuable medicine. It affords me unlimited pleasure to testify as to the merits of your remedy as a catarrh cure. I have used it as such and find it is of very great benefit when my nervous system is run down.
Despite cheaper alternatives and no evidence that the secret ingredients work, energy drinks will likely survive this latest challenge, just as patent medicines survived Samuel Adams’s muckraking work—three decades later Professor A. J. Clark noted in his Patent Medicine (A Monogram a Month—Number 14) that the proprietary medicine trade was between £20-28 million per year and showed no sign of decline. Perhaps we need sharper tools than evidence and clinical trials. Those were not sufficient a century ago. It remains to be seen if they are effective today.
[Cross posted at PACHS.]