Should We Label Caffeine Content in Energy Drinks?

March 22, 2013

What are the current regulations for labeling caffeine content in energy drinks?

Barely a week goes by without some media headline about energy drinks. In recent months, coverage-particularly on caffeine products-reached fever pitch.

The underlying concern is whether energy drinks-as well as energy supplements-are used safely. Worries include the potential danger of combining caffeine and alcohol, as well as consumption by minors.

These days, scrutiny has shifted to yet another aspect of energy products: how/whether products are labeled to disclose caffeine content.

Under current food and dietary supplement rules, energy drinks and energy supplements must disclose the presence of added caffeine by listing caffeine as an ingredient. (“Added” caffeine is considered differently than caffeine contributed naturally to a formula by, say, botanical ingredients-such as guarana or yerba mate-inherently containing caffeine.)

In the case of both energy drinks and energy supplements, however, disclosing the precise quantity of caffeine is optional. Dietary supplements, for instance, do not need to list a specific caffeine amount if the caffeine is considered part of the company’s proprietary ingredient blend.

All energy drinks and supplements should be required to disclose their caffeine amounts, argue those worried that some products contain unsafe, high caffeine levels.

Also of concern is whether companies that do choose to list caffeine levels do so accurately. In recent months, Consumer Reports-as well as NSF International, Harvard Medical School, and the Uniformed Services University-reported that a number of products they tested contained higher levels of caffeine than the levels listed on their product labels, sometimes exceeding 20% the levels listed.

More energy drink and energy supplement companies may begin voluntarily disclosing caffeine amounts, however. In light of negative press on caffeine and energy drinks, companies may prefer to be exceedingly forthright with customers about what their products contain.

On the industry’s side, one leading association encourages its own members to label caffeine content. As part of its code of ethics, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA; Silver Spring, MD) recommends that product labels not only disclose the presence of added caffeine in a dietary supplement but also disclose the “quantity of caffeine per recommended serving, stated in both (1) milligrams per serving and (2) in equivalent approximate cups of coffee, where 100 mg of caffeine represents one cup of coffee.”

According to AHPA president Michael McGuffin, the goal is to give consumers as much information as possible. “Many consumers benefit from caffeine-containing products. They are most informed to make their purchase decisions when they know [how much] caffeine is present in the products they use,” he says.

There’s another reason why companies may choose to list caffeine levels, adds Justin Prochnow, attorney and shareholder at Greenberg Traurig LLP (Denver). “I’ve talked to a lot of people who feel it’s a benefit to disclose the amount of caffeine, specifically because if customers are looking for a good caffeine boost, they’ll know the product has the amount they want,” he says.

“I think it’s a benefit both ways,” Prochnow continues. “I do think that more disclosure of caffeine content would help people make more informed decisions about how much caffeine they actually want from a product. For instance, if they know a product contains 180 mg of caffeine, and they know they will be drinking two of them, for a total of 360 mg, then maybe they’ll say, ‘That’s enough for me.’”

Jennifer Grebow