Devotees of Panera's Charged Lemonade are savoring their last drops of the controversial beverage (2024)

One devotee of Panera Bread’s Charged Lemonade is hoarding her final cups of the beverage in her freezer. Another is looking up recipes so she can replicate it at home. And another joked that he and his friends are “in a dark place” following the news that Panera is phasing out the Charged Lemonade nationwide.

Despite at least three lawsuits blaming the highly caffeinated drink for a woman’s permanent health problems and two deaths, Charged Lemonade has amassed a dedicated fan base — and enthusiasts of the controversial beverage are savoring their last drops before it is discontinued.

A spokesperson for Panera declined to comment on precisely when all Paneras will stop selling the Charged Lemonade, and Panera has denied wrongdoing in legal documents in response to the lawsuits. Nonetheless, loyal buyers from coast to coast are preparing ahead of the drink’s final days.

Liz Parker, 37, of Clawson, Michigan, has about a third of a large Charged Lemonade every day — enough, she says, to give her some pep without irritating her Crohn’s disease. She bought four cups last week when she heard that Panera was discontinuing the drink.

“There’s two of them in the freezer, and then there’s two of them in the fridge,” Parker said while traveling for her job as a trade magazine editor. She said she hoped the lemonades would last until she returned. “I’ll see if it tastes the same.”

The lawsuits refer to Charged Lemonade as a “dangerous energy drink” and blame it for the deaths of Sarah Katz, 21, a University of Pennsylvania student with a heart condition, and Dennis Brown, 46, a Florida man with a chromosomal deficiency disorder and a developmental delay. A separate lawsuit alleges it caused Lauren Skerritt, a Rhode Island woman, to have “permanent cardiac injuries.” The suits are all ongoing, with the first set to go to trial in September.Still, the drink has its followers: Parker is one of five customers across the United States who spoke to NBC News about their love of Charged Lemonade. All said they were part of Panera’s Unlimited Sip Club, a subscription plan that allows customers unlimited drinks from the bakery-cafe chain for a monthly fee.

With his Sip Club membership, Bruce Tarburton, 22, a senior at the University of Oregon, was getting Charged Lemonade at least three times a week — sometimes twice in one day. The drink increased his productivity with his schoolwork, he said.

“It was the cost-effective route to go,” he said. “Friends of mine that I knew were in the same boat as me, like wanting to save and consuming a lot of caffeine —I’ve texted a few of them, and we’re all sad and in a dark place.”

Most of the Charged Lemonade fans who spoke to NBC News said that despite the lawsuits, they didn’t worry that the drink was dangerous to their own health. That’s a common phenomenon, said Crystal Reeck, an associate professor of marketing at the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“What you’re running into is this distinction between risk and perceived risk,” Reeck said, adding that when consumers have had a lot of experience with a particular product without incident, their perceptions of the risk to their own safety is lowered.

“Even when you hear about these bad things happening, you attribute them more to the individual they happened to,” rather than to the product, she said.

And loyalty programs such as Panera’s Unlimited Sip Club membership are a “surefire way to build your customer base,” Reeck said.

“Any time you offer something that feels free, people are going to consume it,” she said. Subscription models, she continued, are a way “to try to build up your customer base and get people through the door, at least initially, and then to have a revenue stream moving forward.”

Panera previously advertised its Charged Lemonade as “Plant-based and Clean with as much caffeine as our Dark Roast coffee.” But the lawsuits said that at 390 milligrams, a large, 30-fluid-ounce Charged Lemonade with no ice has more caffeine in total than any size of Panera’s dark roast coffee.

The Food and Drug Administration says healthy adults can generally safely consume 400 milligrams of caffeine a day.

Pamela Krasny, 27, who works at an insurance company and lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, said she goes to Panera on her lunch break every day for a Charged Lemonade. With the in-store supply dwindling, she has been looking up ways to make it at home.

“I have gotten quite a few of those Pinterest bootleg copycat lemonade recipes,” she said.

The Charged Lemonade contains caffeine from multiple sources, including the stimulant guarana.

After getting sued, Panera moved the Charged Lemonade behind the counter so it was no longer self-serve and updated its nutrition information to reflect how much caffeine is in the drink with ice. A large blood orange Charged Lemonade, for example, is now listed at 302 milligrams.

In a statement, a Panera spokesperson said the drink was being discontinued nationwide after a “recent menu transformation.”

“We listened to more than 30,000 guests about what they wanted from Panera, and are focusing next on the broad array of beverages we know our guests desire — ranging from exciting, on-trend flavors, to low sugar and low-caffeine options,” the spokesperson said, adding that Panera plans to introduce beverages including a “new Blueberry Lavender Lemonade, Pomegranate Hibiscus Tea, Citrus Punch and a Tropical Green Smoothie.”

The spokesperson declined Wednesday to say whether the new drinks will contain caffeine and, if so, how much.

Ty Lewis, 21, who lives in Salina, Kansas, and works in a retail job at a mall with a Panera nearby, said they reduced their consumption of Charged Lemonade after having read about the lawsuits.

“It definitely did freak me out a little,” Lewis said.

Ashlea Goodman, 31, a stay-at-home mother of three kids in Clarksburg, West Virginia, said she buys Charged Lemonades “to get out of that afternoon crash.”

But she said that “it’s terrible to read that someone passed away” and that she felt it would be “selfish” to ask Panera to keep selling Charged Lemonade.

“I feel bad for the families,” she said.

Elizabeth Chuck

Elizabeth Chuck is a reporter for NBC News who focuses on health and mental health, particularly issues that affect women and children.

Devotees of Panera's Charged Lemonade are savoring their last drops of the controversial beverage (2024)
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