The Importance of Accurate Labeling for Natural Energy Drinks

Energy drinks, particularly natural energy drinks, are increasingly popular, with most containing caffeine. The category yielded an estimated $159 billion USD in revenue in 2021 and continues to grow. There are some caveats for users and brands, however.
In September 2022, a 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania student – Sarah Katz – drank a Panera Bread Charged Lemonade. Not long after, Sarah, who had a heart condition, died from cardiac arrest. The trigger for her passing, as claimed in a lawsuit by her parents, was her unknowing consumption of a significant amount of caffeine.
A large cup size of Panera Bread’s Charged Lemonade contains 97.5% of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recommended daily caffeine limit1 of 400mg for healthy adults. Sarah, however, had long QT syndrome type 1 (LQT1), a rare condition where the heart’s potassium ion channels are impaired. This anomaly disrupts the organ’s electrical activity2. Physical exercise, emotional stress, and overstimulation from substances such as caffeine can generate arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeat).
Panera Bread’s Charged Lemonade
The beverage, described by Panera as the “ultimate energy drink,” contains green tea, guarana extract, and yerba mate concentrate. The large size yields up to 124 grams of sugar and 390mg of caffeine – as much as or more than a dark roast coffee and many leading branded energy drinks.
However, instead of advertising its caffeine content as high, Panera promoted the beverage as “clean caffeine.” The consumer likely understands the term “clean” as “good for you” or, at the very least, safe.
Moreover, the Charged Lemonade is offered as part of Panera’s Unlimited Sip Club, meaning subscribing members can enjoy unrestricted refills of any size every two hours. Unfortunately, the caffeine level is uncontrolled because store staff mixes and prepares the drink. The self-serve “bottomless” cup promotion compounds this lack of regulation.
Sarah and Dennis
While Sarah had built a lifestyle around avoiding caffeinated energy drinks, she mistook the Charged Lemonade for a regular lemon-based beverage. As a member of the Unlimited Sips Club, Sarah drank from the large cup, consuming an unknown amount of caffeine.
In December 2023, a second lawsuit was filed against Panera after the October death of Dennis Brown in Florida. Brown drank three servings of his local Panera Bread’s Charged Lemonade, dying from cardiac arrest on his way home.
Panera, who has stated that they “strongly believe in transparency” regarding ingredients3, provided product labeling that was unclear and fatally misleading. “Natural” and “clean” sound good. At the same time, too much of a good thing, even a natural compound, can be dangerous.
As a result, it’s essential that, beyond detailing ingredients, labeling reflects sources and nutritional profiles. Moreover, transparency warrants listing amounts and consumption warnings. So, what can manufacturers do to follow labeling best practices to attract, inform, and protect users and the business?
Best Labeling Practices for Energy Drink Manufacturers
According to the FDA, energy drink packaging should detail a list of product ingredients, a Nutrition Facts panel, and a declaration of allergens4. Further recommendations from the American Beverage Association (ABA) include extra information to avoid liability issues.
This data should reflect higher caffeine (and any other stimulant) amounts. Include the amount per serving, contraindications, clarity that energy drinks are not supplements, and a caution to avoid mixing with alcohol.
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