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FDA says some energy drinks may pose danger, vows to get ingredient DMAA banned

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says a stimulant used in supplements and some energy drinks that are popular with kids and young adults is dangerous.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says a stimulant used in supplements and some energy drinks that are popular with kids and young adults is dangerous.
Mike Terry, Deseret News

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says a stimulant used in supplements and some energy drinks that are popular with kids and young adults is dangerous.

The agency Thursday warned parents and consumers to avoid supplements, including energy drinks, containing dimethylamylamine (DMAA), while it undertakes the lengthy and complicated process of getting the stimulant banned.

"The (FDA) is using all available tools at its disposal to ensure that dietary supplements containing a stimulant called dimethylamylamine (DMAA) are no longer distributed and available for sale to consumers in the marketplace," it said in a written release distributed to media and posted on its website.

"The ingredient, DMAA, is most commonly used in supplements promising weight loss, muscle building and performance enhancement; it can elevate blood pressure and could lead to cardiovascular problems, including heart attack, shortness of breath and tightening of the chest. Given the known biological activity of DMAA, the ingredient may be particularly dangerous when used with caffeine," the FDA said.

An FDA fact sheet lists 10 other names the supplement is known by on labels, including methylhexanamine or geranium extract, and said it "is an ingredient found illegally in some dietary supplements and often touted as a 'natural' stimulant. DMAA, especially in combination with other ingredients such as caffeine, can be a health risk to consumers. Ingestion of DMAA can elevate blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular problems ranging from shortness of breath and tightening in the chest to heart attack. Dietary supplements containing DMAA are illegal and FDA is doing everything within its authority to remove these products from the market. FDA has issued warning letters to companies notifying them products with DMAA need to be taken off the market or reformulated to remove this substance. Most companies warned are no longer distributing products with DMAA. While FDA is working to get these products off the market, consumers should not buy or use any dietary supplement product containing DMAA."

Meanwhile, pediatricians and lawmakers continue to express concern, as well, about the caffeine load in energy drinks and the way some drinks are marketed to adolescents.

Results of a congressional investigation were released Wednesday. The summary of the "What's All the Buzz About" report bore this title: "Drink Makers Peddle Nearly Identical Products as Dietary Supplements, Beverages, While Pushing to Adolescents." The report, it said, was "compiled using responses from 14 energy drink companies received by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) from their investigation into the industry."

Among other issues, the report said that "nearly identical drinks are both classified as conventional beverages and dietary supplements, leading to consumer confusion and regulatory issues."

Confusion in how dietary supplements and energy drinks intertwine — or don't — is part of the challenge the FDA faces. The Boston Globe story said the confusion arises in part because beverage manufacturers don't have to list the amount of caffeine in a beverage or report adverse events that might be associated with the drink.

"Energy drink supplements, on the other hand, have a different label that must list the amount of caffeine — unless it’s in a mix of proprietary ingredients; they can also contain a wide range of other ingredients such as herbs and amino acids without proving that they’re safe, as long as they were used in supplements before a 1994 federal supplement law was enacted.

"Unlike beverage makers, supplement manufacturers must alert the FDA if they receive reports of side effects from their product," the article said. It also takes a closer look at competing claims between the government and one of the supplements that was the subject of the FDA warning, an energy drink supplement called Jack3d that's the subject of a lawsuit and competing health claims.

The congressional report pointed out that energy drink manufacturers can choose whether to call their product beverages or dietary supplements.

It's not the first time energy drinks have come under fire. The nation's top body of pediatricians earlier this year warned of potential harm from energy drinks. It noted harmful effects for adolescents, from heart and digestive problems to insomnia, anxiety, dehydration and more. If teens mix them with alcohol, it's even more dangerous, that report in Pediatrics in Review said.

The most popular energy drinks contain "high, unregulated amounts of caffeine, as well as other stimulants that can enhance the effect of caffeine," according to a statement at that time from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The AAP's report, called "Energy Drinks: What Teenagers (and Their Doctors) Should Know," said that "hundreds of different energy drinks are available and are marketed to adolescents, carrying the potential for substance abuse that involved caffeine and alcohol. Clinicians must be educated to deal with their patients' use of these products."

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