Charged Debate

Is Panera playing with fire by putting so much caffeine in its fruity beverages? A new warning, spurred by a lawsuit, suggests yes.

By Ernie Smith

Nearly 40 years ago, a soda brand named Jolt Cola made a bit of a splash among night owls and college students trying to finish term papers.

Simply put, the company decided to put as much caffeine as it possibly could into a 20-ounce can of soda—around 5.9 milligrams per fluid ounce, or just under 120 milligrams. (I wrote about it, and other caffeinated beverages, for Jared Holst’s great Brands Mean A Lot newsletter a couple years back.) It probably would have put in more, but it was kneecapped by FDA regulations of the era, which limited caffeine levels to 6 milligrams per fluid ounce for soft drinks.

Admittedly, Jolt was something of a flash-in-the-pan that evolved into a cult drink whose big idea later competitors ran with—Monster and Red Bull well outpaced Jolt’s execution. But even those beverages pale in comparison to a certain fountain drink that has been taking Middle America by storm in recent months.

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Panera’s Charged Lemonades, released about a year and a half ago, have significantly more caffeine than any of these drinks, at 245 to 260 milligrams for a 20-ounce beverage, or up to 13 milligrams per ounce. And thanks to a recent lawsuit filed by the family of a college student with a caffeine sensitivity who died after drinking the beverage, it’s finally in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons—and appears to be at risk of drawing the FDA’s scrutiny.

YouTuber MatPat was also early to the alarms on Charged Lemonades, for what it’s worth.

This week, Panera toughened its warnings around the beverages, which are included in its popular drink subscription plan. But the lawsuit wasn’t the first to sound the alarm—a lot of TikTok users, one as early as May of 2022, also published warnings about this drink well before Panera toughened its messaging around the beverage. It has a reputation as going harder than even McDonald’s Sprite.

So how bad is 245 to 260 milligrams in comparison to what Panera already sells? For sake of comparison, Panera also sells lots of coffee, with its iced coffees delivering around 156mg in the same container size, and its cold brews containing 162mg in a 16-ounce glass. It also sells soft drinks—Mountain Dew, the most caffeinated of those, tops out at 86mg in a 20-ounce glass.

While its dark-roast coffee has a comparable amount of caffeine to the charged drinks, as they note in their advertising—about 214mg in a 16-ounce glass and 268mg in a 20-ounce glass—it’s useful to note that the 20-ounce of a dark-roast coffee is the large size, while a 20-ounce of the lemonade is the small size. Because of the extra sugar, natural electrolytes, and fruity flavor, the Charged Lemonades are easier to drink a lot of, quickly—something helped by the fact that, in-store, the lemonades are included in gigantic carafes that people can use to serve themselves. Panera seems to have made the presumption that people would serve themselves non-stop refills of this beverage that has roughly 40 percent more caffeine than an iced coffee, a drink people consume to stay awake in the morning.

So, how did Panera get away with this? Long story short, the rules for caffeine consumption are much more flexible in a restaurant setting, leading to much more room to get creative with the caffeine levels. Admittedly its most direct competitor, Starbucks, also does this with some of its fruit drinks—its Refreshers series of beverages is caffeinated—but even in that case, we’re talking about the same level of caffeine as a can of Pepsi.

(By comparison: A 20-ounce Charged Lemonade has the equivalent of four times the amount of caffeine found in a 20-ounce Pepsi.)

Put another way, Panera decided to push things way further than anyone was really asking them to. In recent years, the content of energy drinks has periodically created something of an outcry—especially around Four Loko, the alcoholic beverage originally released with caffeine levels roughly around the level of a Monster Energy drink before regulatory pressure led its makers to remove it.

Brands like Monster play up the idea of extremes in their marketing. But Panera is that most plebeian of fast-food chains, essentially a deli designed by committee and delivered to settings across the country. (Disclosure: I often work out of them because they tend to make a decent third place.) Because of this middle-of-the-road reputation, combined with the fact that it’s a home for laptop dwellers across the country, it was able to release a drink arguably more dangerous than any standard energy drink on an unsuspecting public, with few raising an eyebrow until Panera faced a lawsuit after someone literally died drinking these beverages.

It’s fascinating what our relationship with marketing and branding can slip under our noses.

Anyway, advice to Panera: No reason you can’t cut down the caffeine content of this line of beverages to something closer to an iced coffee. Nobody was asking you to go this hard with your lemonades—not even Mike.

Charged Links

I’ve been looking at CMS platforms again lately as I do every few years, and I just want to give a shout-out to Directus, which is quite great.

The Professor Of Rock, one of my great guilty-pleasure YouTube views, has a great interview with Ray Parker Jr., who comes off as a brilliant problem-solver while discussing the Ghostbusters theme song. The big problem: Ghostbusters doesn’t rhyme with anything. The solution? Borrow ideas from pest-control commercials!

The founder sucks and was incorrectly portrayed as Tommy Wiseau by Jared Leto, but as an idea, WeWork wasn’t the worst thing to happen to offices. As word of its likely bankruptcy hits, I prefer to think of the good times and the nice architecture. I used the nap room exactly once back in the day.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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