Energy Drinks Are Out of Control

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Whenever he visited his local branch of Panera Bread in Fleming Island, Florida, it was Dennis Brown’s habit to order three drinks in a row. On September 28, and again on October 2, and the 4th, 5th, 7th, and 9th—the day Brown died—his drink of choice was Panera Bread’s Charged Lemonade.

A 20-ounce serving of Charged Lemonade contains 260 milligrams of caffeine, while the 30-ounce cup has 390 mg—close to the US Food and Drug Administration’s recommended daily limit. It isn’t known which size Brown, 46, consumed on October 9, but after finishing his dinner, he left the American fast casual restaurant and suffered a fatal cardiac arrest on a nearby sidewalk shortly after.

A wrongful-death lawsuit filed against Panera Bread on behalf of Brown’s family states that he usually drank iced tea, root beer, or water and was allegedly unaware that Charged Lemonade contains caffeine, as the lawsuit says it wasn’t advertised as an energy drink. Elizabeth Crawford, the attorney representing Brown’s family, has claimed the drink is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Panera Bread says it’s not to blame. “Panera Bread expresses our deep sympathy to Mr. Brown’s family. Based on our investigation, we believe his unfortunate passing was not caused by one of the company’s products,” Jessica Hesselschwerdt, senior director of public relations at Panera Bread, told WIRED. Hesselschwerdt says the case against the company is “without merit,” that Panera “stands firmly by the safety of our products,” and that Charged Lemonade contains “the same amount of caffeine per ounce as a dark roast coffee.”

That may be true. But while health bodies advise that consuming caffeine is OK, as long as we don’t overdo it, in recent years caffeinated drinks have been getting bigger and stronger—so much so that regulators are stepping in.

Nervous Energy

Panera Bread’s drinks aren’t the only ones to have raised concern. In January 2022, the internet found itself in a frenzy over Prime, an energy drink developed by YouTube stars turned boxers Logan Paul and KSI. Sold in neon-colored cans and advertising zero sugar and vegetarian-friendly ingredients, the brand was an immediate hit among the influencer’s combined—and often very young—40 million Instagram followers, who posted their own viral videos of themselves frantically searching for cans of the drink.

By July, US Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer had requested an FDA investigation into the brand, claiming parents were unwittingly serving their children a “cauldron of caffeine” when they purchased the drink. (Prime contains 200 mg of caffeine per 12 ounces—roughly equal to two cans of Red Bull plus a cup of coffee.) In response to Schumer’s calls, the company released a public statement claiming that “Prime energy … contains a comparable amount of caffeine to other top-selling energy drinks.”

The drink is still for sale in the US and UK, but it was one of six energy drinks recalled in Canada earlier this year, with new legislation outlawing drinks containing more than 180 mg of caffeine in a single serving. In a video after the announcement, Paul said that the drinks are compliant with each country’s specific regulations, claiming, “The crazy part about that is, we don’t even distribute Prime Energy in Canada.”

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