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Energy drinks bubble up

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People don't drink them for the taste, says Jon Marlow, manager of the Toledo Lounge in Washington, D.C. The most popular energy-drink mix his bar serves, a Red Bull-Vodka, is $9. "People do it because they can order something that's got caffeine that isn't hot like coffee."

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There are about 130 energy drinks available in the US, says BevNET's Mr. Craven. Most are sold by the can from convenience-store coolers for about $2 each, but cost isn't slowing consumption.

Red Bull, headquartered in Austria, sold about 1 billion cans worldwide last year. That got the attention of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, both of which are eagerly joining the energy drink market. Since last year, the beverage giants have been pulling less profitable soft drinks off store shelves to make room for more caffeine-potent options.

And what about all that caffeine?

"Caffeine isn't innocuous," says Roland Griffiths of the department of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "It's important to recognize that it's a drug. But there's no hard-and-fast rule for how much is problematic."

How much caffeine is problematic depends on the individual, doctors say. "People have different sensitivity levels" to caffeine, says Bruce Goldberger, director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville.

An energy drink affects a 300-pound man differently from a 45-pound 5-year-old, says the ADA's Ms. Anding. Although caffeine is a mild diuretic (causing frequent urination), may block calcium absorption in women, and could prove harmful to pregnant women, not everyone is persuaded that it's dangerous.

"I don't object to people using it," Anding says, "but if you believe that this can be a substitute for a good diet, there's a disconnect."

Daily consumption of caffeine can lead to mild addiction at a threshold of about 100 milligrams per day, says Dr. Griffiths. In such cases, when caffeine consumption stops, withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and sleepiness may occur. It's for this reason that some energy drinks - Red Bull, in particular - are banned in France, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, and Norway.

A 2002 European Union directive states that all drinks containing more than 150 milligrams of caffeine per liter be labeled as such. Teas and coffees are exempt from "high caffeine content" labeling.

In the US, mandatory labeling of carbonated drinks hasn't materialized, although many health experts - including Griffiths and Dr. Goldberger - recommend warning labels.

Getting to the root of caffeine

For energy-drink consumers, caffeine means "go." In nature, however, it's more of a "stop." That's because caffeine, like nicotine and cocaine, is a naturally occurring defense mechanism that plants use to paralyze or kill insects that feed on them.

Caffeine is found in about 60 species of plants including coffee beans, tea leaves, and cacao beans (chocolate).

Coffee and tea trump all other sources of caffeine consumed by humans.

Much of the caffeine that's added to soft drinks also comes from coffee and tea. As caffeine is extracted from the plants during the decaffeination process, it's collected and resold.

Although coffee originated in Ethiopia around the 4th century, Brazil and Colombia remain the world's primary producers and exporters today.