Blackout in a can – that was the extent to which most college students understood the content of the fruity malted beverages, called Four Loko. The Science of Wellness magazine at the University of California-Berkeley looked into the ingredients of these potent alcoholic energy drinks in more depth – we hope to make these blackouts a little more clear. In no particular order:
Taurine: Taurine is a component of many energy drinks and supplements, including the original Four Loko beverages. Taurine (2-aminoethanesulfonic acid) is a conditionally essential amino acid abundant in muscle tissues. While it is essential for healthy bodily functions, it can be biosynthesized from other amino acids found in a healthy diet (although it is present in high levels in seafood and can also be purchased as a nutritional supplement at any health store). Its roles in the body span from bile acid conjugation, detoxification, membrane stabilization, osmoregulation and control of cellular calcium levels. Energy drinks and supplements favor the use of taurine because of its supposed role in increasing muscle strength and reducing damage to muscles caused by exercise. However, studies on whether or not the level of taurine in energy drinks is significant enough to actually have an impact remain inconclusive.
Vitamin B6, B12, niacin, and pantothenic acid: All of these ingredients are included in energy drink beverages, including Red Bull and Monster. These compounds are essential for the body’s central metabolism, including biosynthesis of compounds used in the citric acid cycle, the breakdown of sugar into usable energy for cells, and amino acid metabolism. However, these energy drinks should not be considered a significant source of these vitamins; they are abundant in a healthy diet. Consuming an excess of these compounds will not make you healthier – any excess of these compounds in your body will be excreted through urine.
Energy drink manufacturers infuse drinks with these compounds for different reasons aside from the claimed health benefits – they fluoresce under a black light. These compounds are aromatic (think benzene rings) that absorb and emit neon light when subjected to a UV light.
On a side-note, you do not need to buy these energy drinks to make a glow-in-the-dark mixed drink – just have a gin and tonic! The quinine in tonic water is a malarial prophylactic extracted from cinchona bark – but the alkaloid
quinone quinine also fluoresces under a black light. This famous cocktail was concocted first by British colonists in the 18th century, looking to take the edge off of the bitter alkaloid taste of tonic water by mixing it with gin.
Guarana: Guarana (Paullinia cupia) is a plant naturally found in the Amazon Basin, particularly Brazil. It contains a complicated mixture of isolable compounds – including methylxanthine, theophylline/theobromine, and tannins – but its most notable extractable compound is caffeine. In fact, guarana contains 2-3 times the amount of caffeine of an equivalent amount of coffee beans. Generally, energy drink manufacturers will use guarana as a masked way to increase the caffeine content of their beverage.
Caffeine: Possibly the most controversial ingredient in the original Four Loko brew, it is also one of the most potent. Caffeine is the most widely used legal drug; it exhibits psychoactive, stimulatory effects on the body’s central nervous system. Caffeine takes effect by blocking adenosine receptors in the body, leading the pituitary gland to signal for the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands (located on top of the kidneys). Increased adrenaline in the body’s system alerts symptoms of a “flight or fight” response – if you are in no immediate danger, you just feel a “coffee buzz.” Although most college students are familiar with caffeine consumption, caffeine begins to take effect within an hour of consumption (of one to two cups, about 150-250 mg); a student will exhibit clearer and more rapid thought, greater sustained intellectual effort, increased motor activity, and delayed feelings of drowsiness and fatigue. If consumed in enormous excess, it can be lethal – for a 150-lb. college student, this toxicity corresponds to a lethal dosage of about 13 grams of caffeine, or 65 cups of coffee. Because of its stimulatory effect, its consumption can also be followed by a slight let down (i.e. fatigue and lethargy), although it can have severe withdrawal symptoms in heavy caffeine users. Although the original recipe for Four Loko contained about the same amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee (260 mg), caffeine has considerably different implications when consumed with alcohol.
(Editor’s note: Want to know more about Caffeine and its potentially harmful effects? Check out last week’s C&EN cover story.)
Alcohol: Clearly the most notorious ingredient in the Four Loko concoction. Unlike caffeine, alcohol is a depressant. In one can of Four Loko, there is an equivalent amount of alcohol as five 12-oz. cans of Coors Light (or your beer of choice). A 150-lb. man drinking a can of Four Loko over an hour-and-a-half time period would have a BAC (blood alcohol content) of about 0.102; comparatively, a 125-lb. woman drinking a single can of Four Loko over a two-hour time period would have a BAC of 0.137.* (Note: Alcohol metabolism is highly variable depending on the person in question. It depends on genetic make-up, health, and recent food consumption. These numbers are approximate and meant to give an idea of the level of intoxication possible. Get an idea of your BAC from drinking a can of Four Loko here.) At this BAC (0.09-0.25), effects of alcohol become observable: loss of critical judgment, impairment of perception, reduced visual acuity, sensory-motor incoordination and impaired balance.
Despite the fact that caffeine and alcohol appear to have opposing effects on the central nervous system, caffeine acts more to mask the physiological effects of alcohol – it does not “cancel” it out. Although it is too dangerous to test the limits of mixing caffeine and alcohol in humans, most scientists agree that caffeine delays the drowsiness brought on by alcohol consumption, allowing consumers to drink past a reasonable limit. Interviews with college bar patrons show that those who had drunk alcoholic energy drinks were more likely to stay out later, drink for longer periods of time, and ingest more alcohol, and they are more likely to express an interest in driving while intoxicated than students who drink only alcoholic beverages.
In November 2010, Phusion LLC, the makers of Four Loko, announced that they were changing the composition of Four Loko drinks by removing the taurine, guarana, and caffeine. Four Lokos are still sold today, without caffeine, although the alcohol content has remained the same.
Four Lokos are not the first beverage that has mixed a stimulant with alcohol. In fact, in the
1800s, a French chemist named Angelo Mariani created a potent wine, Vin Mariani, that was actually a Bordeaux wine infused with cocaine. This “cocawine” was imbibed in a slightly different setting than the Four Lokos of today; instead, it was drunk at intellectual gatherings with the likes of Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, and even President Ulysses S. Grant. At the time, much less was known about cocaine, but one fact remains the same – the search for alcoholic beverages combined with stimulants is not over. We can only hope that the next drink we see is a little less loco.
This post originally appeared in the Science of Wellness, which features articles written by graduate and undergraduate students on topics related to the chemistry of nutrition, food science, and health. All our articles are written with support and information gathered from accredited scientific articles and professionals. In this way, we hope that students will understand the science behind health claims in order to make better food choices. Check out www.scienceofwellness.org to learn more. Interested in writing, editing, or doing layout design for the Science of Wellness magazine? Email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org to get more involved.