Mr. Bhargava’s Miracle Elixir: Fact-Checking The 5-Hour Medicine Show
Originally published on Deadline Detroit.
Manoj Bhargava, whose Farmington Hills-based company Living Essentials LLC produces 5-hour Energy, claims the product has made him a billionaire. Business organizations and local journalists have gushed over Bhargava’s commercial acumen and 5-hour Energy’s success.
Bhargava immigrated to the United States from Lucknow, India, as a teenager in the 1960s and his product, according to Forbes, controls 90% of the energy shot market. His company reportedly grossed $600 million in 2011 alone.
What hasn't been explored, at least locally, is how or why 5-hour Energy actually works.
The product's websites boast the product contains a "blend of B-vitamins, amino acids and nutrients" as well as about "as much caffeine as a cup of the leading premium coffee." They boast the product provides a more effective and long-lasting boost than coffee or caffeinated soda.
So, how does this combination of ingredients boost your energy?
According to an emailed statement from company spokeswoman Elaine Lutz: "Caffeine, along with B-Vitamins, amino acids and metabolites in 5-hour ENERGY®, provide the energy boost. … Unlike coffee alone, this is not an effect that soon wears off, but one that has been clinically tested to last for hours."
Deadline Detroit requested data from this clinical test, but Lutz characterized the study as a "randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover scientific study," but declined to share the results. She claimed the study was "proprietary."
Other medical and scientific experts are skeptical of those claims. Dr. Stephen Barrett, MD who runs the website Quackwatch, says caffeinated energy drinks and shots may give you a boost, but he is doubtful 5-hour Energy’s blend of vitamins and nutrients is more effective than a cup of coffee.
“There’s no reason to think any vitamins or minerals will contribute in any special way to energy,” says Dr. Barrett. “If your diet is adequate, adding a few vitamins and minerals will have absolutely no effect on your energy.”
What, if anything, makes this product effective? The answer, says Dr. Barrett, is caffeine. That's an opinion shared by a consensus of medical experts.
“Caffeine is a very effective psychoactive stimulant,” says Brian Dunning, a science writer and host of the Skeptoid podcast. Like Dr. Barrett, Dunning believes ingredients other than caffeine have little value.
5-hour Energy recently launched a nationwide advertising blitz highlighting a survey of 3,000 doctors that the company says validates its product. The on-camera spokesperson invites viewers to learn more about the doctors’ findings at a special website. The three-page site, however, offers virtually no data from medical experts to bolster claims of 5-hour Energy’s efficacy:
Doctorsreview5hour.com: "Of the 73% of primary care physicians who would recommend a low calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements, 56% would specifically recommend 5-hour ENERGY for their healthy patients who use energy supplements. Of all primary care physicians surveyed, 47% would specifically recommend 5-hour ENERGY for their healthy patients who use energy supplements.
“That’s not saying doctors say you should drink these,” says Dunning. “It’s for the patients who already drink them anyway: 'Well, at least drink a low calorie one.' It’s exactly like a doctor saying: 'If you’re going to hit yourself over the head with a hammer, I recommend you use a lightweight hammer.'”
Compared to sugary energy drinks like Red Bull, which contains 100 calories in an eight-ounce serving, a 5-hour Energy shot only contains four calories.
Meet The New Cure, Same As The Old Cure
In many ways 5-hour Energy's marketing is similar to an infamously lucrative late-19th Century product, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. That tonic was marketed to treat “female complaints.” Repeated double-blind studies consistently found no evidence that Mrs. Pinkham’s special formula of root and vegetable extracts did a damn bit of good. The product’s alcohol content, however, likely provided boozy relief for ladies of the Victorian era.
5-hour Energy touts its blend of “B-Vitamins, amino acids and metabolites,” to quote Lutz, but like Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, the active ingredient appears to be something far less complicated or exotic than advertised. Mrs. Pinkham had alcohol. Mr. Bhargava has caffeine.
“They put those [other ingredients] in because they are inexpensive and look better on the ingredient list than caffeine,” says Dunning, who despite his skepticism says he occasionally uses energy shots for a boost of caffeine. “If you have anything like a normal diet, you are already getting more Vitamin B, etc. than your body is actually going to use. So supplementing, whether it is with [5-hour Energy] or any other supplement product basically does no good whatsoever.”
Four years ago, Hope Barkoukis, an associate professor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and chairwoman of Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists, echoed Dunning's sentiments in an L.A. Times article about B vitamin supplements and energy drinks.
L.A. Times: It's true that the vitamins help unlock the energy in foods, Barkoukis says, but weary office workers can't expect to get a jolt from extra B vitamins in any form. The reason, she says, is simple: Just about everyone in America already gets all of the B vitamins they could possibly need in their diets.
This Black Box Is Locked
The fact that medical and scientific experts say energy shots have a stimulative benefit comparable to a cup of coffee or a Diet Coke probably explains why the physicians' survey commercial seems to say one thing (doctors prefer low-cal energy drinks to sugary energy drinks) but imply something more (doctors say 5-hour Energy is good for you).
One wonders what else doctors had to say about 5-hour Energy and similar products in these surveys.
The 5-hour Energy websites don’t include the raw data from the survey, direct quotes from doctors, the identities of the doctors surveyed, or even the questions that were asked. We requested that information, but were denied any further access to survey data beyond what the company already posted on the internet.
Lutz responded to our request (we left her a phone message) with this email: “Thank you for your inquiry. You can visit our website at www.5hourenergy.com. You can review the information related to the surveys.”
Their "doctorsreview5hour.com" website contains three pages--an introductory home page repeating the claims from the commercial, a page explaining the product's ingredients, and a submission form. The company says the rest of the survey data is proprietary.
Barrett says the public claims based on the survey ignore the logical primary question consumers want answered: Will this drink actually boost my energy?
Questions about caloric intake are secondary, according to Dr. Barrett.
“I guess if you’re going to take soft drinks, depending upon your exercise level, you may need to think about them being low calorie,” he says. But he is quick to add that an active person with healthy diet may be able to consume high calorie energy drinks or sodas in moderation without any negative health consequences. He also says just because the product is safe and low calorie, doesn't mean it's the best way to boost your stamina.
According to Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietician and nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic, caffeine is safe for most people in moderate doses, but also cautions that daily usage of energy drinks isn’t necessarily the best way to deal with fatigue.
“If you're consistently fatigued or rundown, however, consider a better — and healthier — way to boost your energy,” Zeratsky wrote in an article posted on the Mayo Clinic’s website. “Get adequate sleep, include physical activity in your daily routine, and eat a healthy diet. If these strategies don't seem to help, consult your doctor. Sometimes fatigue is a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as hypothyroidism or anemia.”
One Born Every Minute
Perhaps it is fair to give Bhargava credit as a brilliant marketer, but that's only a small part of the story.
“It’s possible that 5-hour Energy, like hundreds of other products, might make some people feel more energetic,” says Dr. Barrett. “My response is so what? That doesn’t mean it’s optimal. By optimal I mean the best thing to do the job and modestly priced.”
That, Dr. Barrett notes, is the problem with products like 5-hour Energy. No one suggests it's unsafe, and its caffeine content probably makes it effective. However, it's promising much more than a jolt of caffeine. There's little evidence available to suggest the $3+ energy shot provides any more benefit than an 8 oz. cup of coffee sold for a buck and change, or made at home for pennies. What does a consumer get for that premium price? And, considering the company claims the product is used nine million times a week, what is the economic and social cost over the long run?
“My concern is whether people are misled, no matter how harmless it seems, and whether they waste money,” says Dr. Barrett. “My concern is about the fact that society is not coping with the enormous amount of misleading information—that the laws are not protecting people…misleading people pays. I would like to live in a society where it doesn’t pay to mislead people.”