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A lawsuit says a man died after drinking a highly caffeinated beverage at Panera


The Panera restaurant chain faces a lawsuit related to a highly caffeinated beverage on the menu. A family in Florida contends that 46-year-old Dennis Brown died after drinking three large servings of Panera's Charged Lemonade. According to Panera, a large serving of this lemonade can contain as much as 390 milligrams of caffeine, which is equal to about four cups of coffee, so it's like the guy drank a dozen cups of coffee. Panera denies its drink was responsible for the death, but this is not the first such lawsuit. So what are the risks of a refill?

Jennifer Temple directs the Nutrition and Health Research Laboratory at the University at Buffalo. Good morning.

JENNIFER TEMPLE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: At what point does caffeine become dangerous?

TEMPLE: Well, it's really different among different people, so there's a lot of individual variability. But in general, people start to experience some negative side effects when they've had too much, so they feel nauseous or jittery or anxious or irritable. And if they continue to consume caffeine beyond those feelings, then they can start to have some more serious side effects, like heart palpitations and then even cardiac arrest, which is what happened in this case.

INSKEEP: This would be - I guess the cardiac arrest would be somebody with a comorbidity, as they say, right? This might be somebody who already has an issue, and the caffeine makes it worse.

TEMPLE: Yes. Typically, it's - these deaths don't happen in people who are healthy. They typically happen in people with an underlying cardiac condition or something cardiovascular, like in this case, I think the man had high blood pressure. And so in those cases, high levels of caffeine would be contraindicated.

INSKEEP: Is it normal to be out in the world and come up with a drink that has the equivalent of four cups of coffee in the one drink, and you can get another and another and another? Is that normal in restaurants?

TEMPLE: No, it's not normal. Actually, this is - it's - one of the unique things about this case is that, typically, beverages with very high levels of caffeine, like energy drinks, are sold in discrete packaging that are clearly labeled. And the lemonades were out with all the other drinks, and they were able to be refilled over and over again. So it would be difficult for somebody to know exactly how much caffeine they've consumed.

And the other thing that's a little bit insidious about this is that lemonade is not something that people would expect to have caffeine, so they may refill it over and over again, not even knowing it had caffeine or not even thinking it had caffeine if it wasn't clearly labeled or if they weren't paying attention.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is a really useful...

TEMPLE: So people who have sensitivity to caffeine avoid beverages that they know have caffeine, but they not - they may not be thinking to avoid lemonade.

INSKEEP: This is a really useful insight about human nature, I think. Now, Panera has told NPR that if you want to know the Charged Lemonade caffeine content, it's available in the cafe, as well as online. Let's assume that that is true. You can get the information. But you're telling me it's not intuitive. If I buy one of those 5-hour Energy drinks, I assume there's probably a bunch of caffeine in there. I understand there's a bunch of caffeine in there. But it's not intuitive to think that you would find it in lemonade that you get out of the dispenser in the restaurant.

TEMPLE: Exactly, especially when they are with all of the other lemonades and all of the other drinks. There was - there's nothing - unless you did a little bit of digging or unless you knew, there's nothing that really makes it obvious that it has caffeine. Now, I think that they have changed their labeling since, but that requires people to pay attention, and it also requires that people understand. So you mentioned that the amount of caffeine was equivalent to four cups of coffee. But if somebody sees 390 milligrams of caffeine, they may not know what that means.

INSKEEP: Jennifer, thanks so much.

TEMPLE: Thank you for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: Jennifer Temple of the Nutrition and Health Research Laboratory at the University at Buffalo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MADE OF OAK'S "PINEBENDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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