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The 4 Most Disgusting Energy Drinks Sold in America

We're inundated by deceptive marketing about these pricey and potentially dangerous drinks.
 
 
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Most of us have experienced a time in our lives when we needed an extra jolt of energy, be it during a college all-nighter or a post-insomnia morning at the office. It’s during these times, when we’re most sleep deprived, vulnerable, and desperate, that energy drink companies hope their marketing will reel us in with promises of an out-of-this-world energy boost.

Any consumer with even a passing awareness of marketing tricks and ploys knows that no product will actually give you “wings” or any other superhuman traits. And yet, according to a recent New York Times report, “Energy drinks are the fastest-growing part of the beverage industry, with sales in the United States reaching more than $10 billion in 2012.”

Although coffee is said to have the same metabolic effect as many energy drinks – and is often significantly cheaper, to boot – shoppers, especially young shoppers, are being lured in by promises of special recipes that can do more for the brain and body than mere caffeine alone. The Timesreport looks at how energy drink websites are filled to the brim with dubious pseudo-science that, combined with slick marketing and packaging, convince hoards of young Americans to spend a good amount of money on substances that are no better than good old-fashioned coffee or NoDoz, and in fact are filled with many useless ingredients. What’s more, some energy drinks can be dangerous if consumed in excess. This is all a sign of a “generational shift in what people drink, and reflects a successful campaign to convince consumers, particularly teenagers, that the drinks provide a mental and physical edge.”

To drive the point home, let’s take a look at some of the more questionable energy drinks on the market.

1. 5-Hour Energy

The fact that this headline, from a November issue of The Week, even needed to exist should tell you something: “Can 5-Hour Energy drink kill you?”

The answer to that question is “maybe.” Though there is no proof that drinking 5-Hour Energy can lead to death, the FDA has reportedly received 13 reports over four years citing the energy “shot” as a potential cause of death. The agency has also received 92 reports of “adverse effects” that cite the drink, some of them involving heart attacks and one a “spontaneous abortion.” There’s speculation that the drink’s spectacularly high doses of caffeine – one tiny, 2-ounce shot is estimated to have twice as much caffeine as a cup of coffee – could be to blame for any of these potential deaths or injuries, since some people are more sensitive to the drug than others.

While we’re on the subject of caffeine, here’s a somewhat disturbing fact: because energy drinks are labeled and sold as “drinks,” they are not required by the FDA to disclose the amount of caffeine they contain.

To top it off, 5-Hour Energy’s claim that drinkers will experience “no crash later” appears to be bull. On the packaging for the product, that claim is followed by an asterisk noting that “no crash means no sugar crash.” Well duh: 5-Hour Energy doesn’t contain any sugar. But it may still lead to an energy crash. A recent study conducted by a Tufts University researcher found that nearly a quarter of participants who drank 5-Hour Energy experienced a “moderately severe crash that left them extremely tired and in need of rest, another drink or some other action.”

2. Red Bull

Ah, Red Bull: the official drink of dorm room cram sessions and dance club vodka cocktails everywhere. (Also, this guy.)

Like 5-Hour Energy, Red Bull has been cited in the deaths of several individuals. In 2001, the Swedish government looked into at least three deaths in which the deceased had recently consumed Red Bull. In two of the cases, the victims had died after drink Red Bull and vodka cocktails, leading the Swedish National Food Administration to issue a formal warning against drinking the two substances together (the agency also warned against drinking Red Bull after exercising).

More recently – this past November – the FDA posted 21 cases of Red Bull users who reportedly experienced hospitalization, vomiting, heart problems, and more.

(It’s worth noting that these FDA cases likely represent only a tiny fraction of health scares related to energy drinks; according to a federal report cited in the New York Times, emergency rooms in the United States saw more than 13,000 visits in which energy drinks were tapped as a potential cause of illness.)

Beyond the drink’s potential health risks, Red Bull’s marketing is, well, weird. “Red Bull is a publishing empire that also happens to sell a beverage,” content strategist James O’Brien wrote in Mashable recently. The company is deeply invested in tying its brand to anything extreme – sports, stunts, and jumps from space (again: shout out to this guy). Its website is full of videos of things like “a 12-year-old skateboarder nailing the world's first ever 1080 (that's three full revolutions) during a ramp jump.” Hardcore. But in the end, the point of all that marketing is to ell a product, and the product Red Bull is selling is snake oil (and potentially harmful snake oil at that), just like every other energy drink on the market.

3. Monster Energy

Another energy drink, another FDA inquiry into potential deaths linked to the product. In October, Monster Energy was cited in five deaths and one non-fatal heart attack. One of the deaths was that of a 14-year-old girl who passed away after drinking two Monster Energy drinks over the course of a 24-hour period. According to the AP, “[a]n autopsy concluded that she died of cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity and the medical examiner also found that she had an inherited disorder that can weaken blood vessels.” The girl’s parents sued the company, alleging that “Monster failed to warn about the risks of drinking its products.”

In an energy drink market that is growing as a whole, Monster stands out, enjoying a 35 percent share of the 2011 market, based on volume. By comparison, Red Bull had 30 percent of the market, and Rockstar 19 percent (all according to Beverage Digest). Over the past two years, Monster’s share price tripled, to a high of $79. That’s a lot of product.

But Monster and its share price were taken down a notch last August when New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman subpoenaed Monster and other energy drink companies as part of a broad investigation of the energy drink industry, according to the AP.

Monster has also been known to be a trademark bully, even sic’ing its lawyers on websites that give their product a less than glowing review.

4. Four Loko

Four Loko is no longer marketed as an energy drink, but it’s still being included on this list. Why? Because it was shown to be so dangerous that the product’s parent company couldn’tmarket it as an energy drink any more.

The original Four Loko was so dangerous because it was not only high in caffeine, but high in alcohol as well. As The Week reported in 2010, “The malt-liquor based concoction, which can contain up to 12 percent alcohol and comes in eight fruity flavors, has been involved in a string of incidents in recent months in which people were hospitalized or died. Doctors say Four Loko's caffeine masks its alcoholic effects, leading drinkers to consume more than they normally would.”

The company has since relaunched Four Loko, without the caffeine or stimulants.

Honorable mention: Cocaine

cocaine

This energy drink is by all accounts similar to may drinks on the market, but it gets a shout out for its ballsy and ridiculous name. (No, it doesn’t contain any illegal substances.)

Lauren Kelley is the activism and gender editor at AlterNet and a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out New York, the L Magazine, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.