For many college students, caffeine fuels the weekday and alcohol fuels the weekend, but a new combination of the two substances is linked to deadly situations on American campuses.
Phusion Projects, LLC — maker of alcoholic energy drink Four Loko — announced on Nov. 16 that due to negative publicity surrounding its product stimulant additives would be removed from the formula.
Still, Phusion Projects co-founder Chris Hunter feels the company is facing an unfair level of criticism.
“If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees that have been consumed safely and responsibly for years would face the same scrutiny that our products have recently faced,” Hunter said in an address to the public regarding the decision.
But many professionals still question the safety of Phusion Projects’ product.
When consulted about the combination of caffeine and alcohol in one 24.5 oz. can, Rutgers U. nutritionist and registered dietitian Peggy Policastro explained the concoction’s effects on the body.
“The natural response of the body to alcohol is sleepiness and fatigue,” she said. “When a stimulant such as caffeine is added, this response is blocked, allowing for the consumer to engage is riskier behavior for longer.”
For many students, the taste of Four Loko is more appealing than that of other beverages, Policastro said.
“The beverage is flavored, unlike beer, which has a very distinct taste of its own,” she said. “For students who generally dislike beer for its taste, Four Loko may be a popular alternative for its relative palatability.”
Regardless of the taste, the alcohol content of Four Loko poses a threat to consumers’ brain chemistry, said Andre Pietrzykowski, a Rutgers U.assistant professor of animal science.
“Even a small amount of alcohol, roughly equivalent to one or two glasses of wine is enough to affect the proteins of the brain,” said Pietrzykowski, who has studied alcohol metabolism in humans. “My fear regarding Four Loko is the fact that one serving contains the amount of alcohol roughly equivalent to an entire bottle of wine, [which] is way too much for one person to drink in one sitting.”
Rutgers professor of nutritional sciences Malcolm Watford said Four Loko can have lasting negative effects on the body, including the increase of an person’s risk for gout, impotence or liver diseases.
This is because the alcohol absorptions causes the liver to release acetylaldehyde, a very potent toxin, Watford said during an “Advanced Nutrition” lecture.
“The liver can metabolize about a half ounce of alcohol per hour, and there is nothing the individual can do to change his or her rate of alcohol absorption,” he said. “Four Loko contains about 80 grams of alcohol. There is nothing redeeming about the drink.”
Other ingredients in the drink do not play as active a role as caffeine and alcohol, Watford said.
“The additive taurine has no function in the drink to my knowledge,” he said. “It is an amino acid, which was once extracted from the stomach bile of bulls, hence the name of the popular energy drink Red Bull.”
According to a Phusion Projects press release, the company makes consumer safety a priority.
“[Phusion Projects] has a history of being as cooperative as we possibly can to ensure that our products are consumed safely, responsibly and only by of-age adults,” according to the release.
But students on campus maintain that the drink, even with the removal of alcohol, poses a threat to peoples’ wellbeing.
“I don’t think removing the caffeine will eliminate abuse of the drink,” said Taisia Robinson, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. “People are already beginning to mix it with Red Bull anyway to get the same effect.”
Robinson, who attends parties at RU on a weekly basis, said she once had to assist a woman at an event who, after just a few sips of Four Loko, was too inebriated to put on her own shoes.
For some, such drunkenness is part of the appeal, she said.
“The problem with Four Loko is that you don’t know how it will affect you until you try it once, but I guess that’s part of the fun for some people, too,” Robinson said. “Most people drink it because they don’t like the taste of beer and playing drinking games with hard liquor would be too much.”
Despite the side effects, there is no federal ban on the product. The removal of the stimulant additives seems to offer a short-term fix, but Phusion Projects is taking measures to ensure due consumer education for its product.
According to the company’s website, “Everyone should work together, to ensure that [Phusion Projects'] products and all alcoholic beverages, are consumed safely and responsibly.”