Starbucks debuts fruity energy drink less than two months after Panera discontinues highly caffeinated Charged Lemonade

Starbucks on Tuesday launched a drink at stores nationwide called Iced Energy, which has up to 205 milligrams of caffeine in it — about the same amount as six cans of Coke. The fruity energy drink debuts less than two months after bakery-cafe chain Panera Bread announced it was discontinuing its controversial Charged Lemonade, a beverage that lawsuits blamed for two deaths and referred to as a “dangerous energy drink.”

The Iced Energy comes in three flavors, including one only available temporarily through the Starbucks app. Its two in-store menu offerings, Melon Burst and Tropical Citrus, range in caffeine from 180 milligrams to 205 milligrams, according to Starbucks. That’s more than a grande Starbucks Caffe Latte, which has 150 milligrams of caffeine, but significantly less than Panera’s Charged Lemonade, which had 390 milligrams of caffeine when it was served in a large, 30-fluid-ounce cup without ice. Panera started phasing out the Charged Lemonade on May 7, and it has denied any wrongdoing, saying it removed the beverage as part of a broader menu transformation.

Except for its limited-edition Frozen Tropical Citrus Iced Energy with Strawberry Puree, Iced Energy is sugar-free, made with artificial sweeteners. All flavors are sold in Starbucks’ venti, 24-fluid-ounce size only and have caffeine, vitamins and taurine — an amino acid common in popular energy drinks that has been touted as helping to improve exercise performance, though more studies are needed. While taurine is not a stimulant, some animal studies indicate that regular consumption of it in high doses could be harmful to adolescents’ developing brains.

Charged Lemonade, on the other hand, contained sugar and guarana extract, a stimulant that purportedly aids with weight loss and improves cognition, but that can be unsafe when it is taken long-term in large amounts.

Charged Lemonade and Iced Energy are part of a growing category called “functional beverages” that chains big and small are eager to jump into, according to experts. Such beverages contain ingredients that are said to improve health.

“You’re just seeing that desire for functional beverages taking hold in a lot of different beverage segments,” said Brian Warrener, director of the Center for Beverage Education & Innovation at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, adding that nonalcoholic “mocktail” elixirs is another area of enormous growth within functional beverages. “Consumers believe that there is some benefit.”

Starbucks’ new drink comes amid a slew of similar options elsewhere. In February, as Panera reeled from the multiple lawsuits over its Charged Lemonade, Dunkin’ introduced SPARKD’ Energy beverages, fizzy energy drinks with guarana and taurine that come in peach and berry flavors and have up to 192 milligrams of caffeine. Smoothie King offers lemonade refreshers that have up to 125 milligrams of “natural caffeine” from green coffee beans.  

The energy drink market as a whole has exploded: As of mid-May, annual U.S. sales of energy drinks had surged to nearly $22 billion, up from about $13.5 billion at the end of 2019, according to Circana, a Chicago-based market research firm.

And energy drinks have more caffeine than ever. Red Bull, which has been sold for decades, contains 114 milligrams of caffeine in a 12-fluid-ounce can, while many newer brands, including Celsius, contain 200 milligrams or more. Others, such as Bang, have 300 milligrams.

The Food and Drug Administration says healthy adults can generally consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, the equivalent to about four or five cups of coffee. 

Starbucks’ menu has items that approach that level, such as the grande blonde roast hot coffee, which has 360 milligrams.

While most adults can have caffeine, the American Academy of Pediatrics says there are no benefits of caffeine for children, and it has specifically stated that adolescents should avoid energy drinks because of health concerns.

A growing number of countries have banned sales of energy drinks to children, with Russia being the latest country to move to halt sales to those under 18. In the U.S., multiple state-led efforts to do the same have failed.

Starbucks’ Iced Energy is different from its refreshers, popular caffeinated juices with about 30 milligrams or more of caffeine — just over the amount in a can of Coke. Starbucks baristas have shared on TikTok that parents are not always aware that refreshers contain caffeine when they order them for their children.

Starbucks did not immediately respond to questions about whether it would take any steps to prevent children from drinking its new energy drinks, but said in an email Tuesday morning that its venti Iced Energy beverages are similar in caffeine content to a grande, 16-fluid-ounce Starbucks Cold Brew, which has 205 milligrams.

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