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Critics say the FDA could do more to regulate caffeinated energy drinks

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Pediatricians and other health experts say the FDA could do more to regulate caffeinated energy drinks and to make parents aware of the potential risks. The concern comes as Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who's also the leader of the Senate Democratic majority, has asked the agency to investigate what he calls an eye-popping amount of caffeine in one brand that's become popular with kids. NPR's Allison Aubrey has this report.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Teenagers may be a lot more caffeinated than their parents realize. Senator Schumer says one brand of energy drink called PRIME has become a status symbol promoted by social media influencers. It contains more caffeine than Red Bull.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: But unlike Red Bull, it is specifically targeted. The advertising campaign is targeted at kids under 18.

AUBREY: Schumer has asked the FDA to investigate both the marketing and the caffeine content, pointing to potential health risks. And Dr. Holly Benjamin, a pediatrician at the University of Chicago, says one of the problems with energy drinks is that it's hard to know how much caffeine and other stimulants they contain.

HOLLY BENJAMIN: I do think parents are unaware of the actual caffeine content or that they think that small amounts of caffeine are fine.

AUBREY: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under the age of 12 consume no caffeinated beverages, and over 12, a general guideline is a maximum of about 100 milligrams a day, the amount found in nearly three cans of Coke. But the energy drink PRIME has double that amount, about 200 milligrams in a 12-ounce serving, which is a little less than a Starbucks coffee of the same size.

BENJAMIN: For you and me and the average parent or college-age kid out there, I think that's, you know, perfectly normal and reasonable.

AUBREY: But for kids and teens not acclimated, that amount of caffeine can lead to unexpected side effects beyond just that feeling of a pick-me-up.

BENJAMIN: When it crosses over into jitteriness, nervousness, anxiety, heart beating too fast, even headaches, that can start to be of more concern.

AUBREY: Food and beverage manufacturers do list caffeine on ingredient labels. But Aviva Musicus of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says they don't have to say how much caffeine a drink contains.

AVIVA MUSICUS: So it has to be in the ingredients list if it is an ingredient. But they're not legally required to put the total content of caffeine on the package.

AUBREY: There's long been efforts to change this, going back to at least 2011, when researchers identified more than 20,000 E.R. visits related to energy drinks. Now pediatricians say social media fuels interest and demand, and many teenagers have little awareness of the risks.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

MARTIN: I want to mention here that PRIME energy drink is labeled as, quote, "not recommended for children under 18," unquote. In a statement, a company spokesperson says the caffeine in it is, quote-unquote, "comparable" to other energy drinks and that PRIME welcomes discussions with the FDA on industry changes the agency might feel are, quote, "necessary in order to protect consumers," unquote. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.