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Two people have died after drinking Panera’s ‘charged’ beverages. Is marketing to blame?

Flavors of charged lemonade displayed at a Panera in Novato, Calif.Justin Sullivan/Getty

For more than a year, the menu at Panera Bread has boasted three fruity, refreshing-sounding beverages branded as “charged sips.”

“Charged” indeed: A 30-ounce serving of one of the lemonades can carry as much as 390 milligrams of caffeine. Though that’s about the same caffeine content by volume as a large iced coffee from Dunkin’, which clocks in at about 396 milligrams, the Panera drinks have become the subject of a pair of wrongful death lawsuits since October after two customers died after consuming the beverages.

What gives?

The controversy, for the most part, lies not in the caffeine content itself but in the marketing of the beverages, according to the lawsuits. The two customers, 46-year-old Florida resident Dennis Brown and 21-year-old Sarah Katz, had preexisting health conditions that made caffeine consumption riskier. Brown had high blood pressure, and Katz had a heart condition, according to the lawsuits filed by their families.

Both suits claimed the deceased typically steered clear of energy drinks and argued that Panera’s beverages were not adequately advertised as such.

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“I’m almost certain they didn’t realize how much caffeine was in the beverage,” said Timothy P. Fitzgibbons, a physician at UMass Memorial Health who specializes in cardiology and is not involved in either case. “It’s too much, probably, even for somebody with no underlying condition in a short period of time.”

Panera, which was cofounded by Boston restaurateur Ron Shaich, said in a statement reported by The New York Times that the company “stands firmly by the safety of our products” and views both lawsuits as “equally without merit.” However, after the lawsuit linked to Katz’s death, the chain “enhanced our existing caffeine disclosure for these beverages at our bakery-cafes, on our website, and on the Panera app,” a spokesperson told NBC News.

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The web listings for the three charged drinks now carry several disclaimers indicating that the beverages are caffeinated, should be used in moderation, and are “not recommended for children, people sensitive to caffeine, and pregnant or nursing women.”

Panera representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

The caffeinated lemonades are yet another example of the turbocharging of otherwise tame food products. Convenience store shelves are now lined with blindingly spicy versions of snack foods. Package stores sell hard seltzers branded with the names of childhood favorites such as SunnyD. And energy drink makers are in something of an arms race to provide the strongest stimulant jolt.

In terms of caffeine content, Panera’s drinks are not out of line with other beverages on the market. Depending on the size and flavor, Panera’s charged lemonades carry anywhere from 150 milligrams of caffeine to 237 milligrams, according to its website. (Those numbers climb if the beverages are served without ice, according to CBS News.)

A mango yuzu citrus charged lemonade at a Panera in Novato, Calif.Justin Sullivan/Getty

The suggested caffeine intake for adults is no more than 400 milligrams in a day, according to the Food and Drug Administration. However, the agency does not require that brands include the amount of caffeine on product labels, according to Registrar Corp., which helps companies comply with FDA regulations.

“Certainly, from a general perspective, someone [who’s] consuming an energy drink that they know has caffeine and they’re doing it purposefully, that is likely to be different than someone who’s drinking lemonade and not recognizing that it has high levels of caffeine,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, a physician and professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

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Panera is not the first energy-drink purveyor implicated in lawsuits following consumer deaths. Monster Energy (which has 160 milligrams of caffeine per can) and 5-Hour Energy (200 milligrams per regular “shot”) have also been cited in such legal actions. PRIME, an energy drink created by YouTube star Logan Paul, has also come under scrutiny in recent months, with Senator Chuck Schumer calling on the FDA to investigate the high caffeine content in the drink.

And it’s not just energy drinks. A Worcester teen died this year after consuming the “Paqui One Chip Challenge,” a single tortilla chip made with two of the world’s hottest peppers. The chip was taken off shelves shortly after.

The difference is that energy drinks or other extreme foods sold in retail settings often explicitly say the word “energy” on the can or include other warnings on their labels. Panera’s beverages, on the other hand, did not include explicit labels when Brown and Katz bought them, according to the lawsuits, and they may not have realized the drinks had so much caffeine. (Panera also sells noncaffeinated lemonade.)

“I think anything even approaching that [400 milligram limit], even half of that, should be really clearly labeled for people, especially if they’re not expecting it to have that,” said Mozaffarian.

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The charged beverages, which come in the flavors blood orange, strawberry lemon mint, and mango yuzu citrus, were rolled out in April 2022, with caffeine described in a Panera press release as “clean” and “plant-based.” The rollout coincided with the launch of Panera’s Unlimited Sip Club, which allows consumers to get unlimited beverages, including the charged lemonades, for a monthly fee.

Historically, energy drinks were often purchased in convenience stores, according to Darren Seifer, the food and beverage industry adviser for Circana, a Chicago-based market research firm. Recently, more fast-food and quick-service restaurants have rolled out their own offerings.

“It looks like they are trying to capitalize on that trend,” said Seifer, who did not comment specifically on Panera’s case.

Since customers are increasingly able to buy energy drinks without necessarily seeing the nutrition facts or other labels, it is up to brands to clearly state the properties of the products.

“I think it’s really just about being transparent about what it is,” Seifer said. “Letting everyone know what is in your product, what’s the energy source, so they can make an informed decision.”

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com. Follow her @danagerber6.