KSJ Tracker January 2, 2013

Stop the presses: Scant proof that energy drinks do what they promise.

On the front page of this morning's New York TimesBarry Meier has a 2,000-word piece on the promise of such "energy drinks" as Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy and Monster Energy. Under the headline, "Energy Drinks Promise Edge, but Experts Say Proof is Lacking," he delivers the following strong message: Energy drinks promise an edge, but experts say the proof is lacking. In other words, once you've read the headline, you pretty much know the story.

It's not a bad story. I learned something about the marketing of energy drinks, their origins in Japan, and two obscure, 40-year-old studies of glucuronolactone injections in rats. (Glucuronolactone is an ingredient in popular energy drinks. The injections in the rats made them swim better, but nobody knows whether it does anything in energy drinks.)

What I did not learn about were FDA reports of 18 deaths and more than 150 injuries that could be related to energy drinks. Meier wrote about this disclosure on Nov. 28 on page B7, and his front-page story today links to it. But there is no link on the print front page, of course, and all he says in the story is that the drinks are "under scrutiny" by the FDA following "reports of deaths and serious injuries." In a story of this length, he and his editors could have done a more thorough job of reminding offline readers why these drinks have provoked concern.

The revelation that energy drinks don't seem to do anything beyond delivering a caffeine jolt is not the kind of news that should earn a place on the front page. I doubt many readers will be surprised by this, and Meier can't say much with certainty about the drinks because they haven't been studied.

In my view, the story deserved about half the space it got. Meier's editors might have done better to put this one on page B7, and the November story about deaths and injuries on page one. Maybe they were atoning today for underplaying the first piece.

-Paul Raeburn


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