As of last week, the popular alcoholic energy drink Four Loko has met its demise. The Food and Drug Administration sent a letter on Nov. 17 to manufacturers of alcoholic energy drinks stating that they found the combination of caffeine and alcohol in these drinks to be “unsafe.”
Not a surprising outcome when you consider the recent bans of the 12 percent ABV energy drink in states like Washington and New York.
Although the crackdown comes much to the delight of college administrators struggling to deal with at Four Loko-related mayhem, for others it has provoked accusations about the “nanny state” and FDA hypocrisy.
Much of the outcry echoes what Phusion Projects wrote in its own defense, in a Nov. 16 statement about eliminating caffeine in their product:
“We have repeatedly contended – and still believe, as do many people throughout the country – that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. 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.”
Phusion Projects is correct- many people do feel the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. The company’s mistake is in conflating drinks like Irish coffees with its own product.
The main issue with Four Loko is not that it simply combines caffeine and alcohol, but that it does so in massive quantities. Take, for example, a recipe for a rum and coke – 5 oz. of cola and 1.5 oz. of rum. This is a fairly typical size and contains roughly 14.5 mg of caffeine and 0.6 oz. of alcohol, assuming the rum is 40 percent ABV.
Or take a sample recipe for Irish coffee, containing 6 oz. of coffee, 1.5 oz. of whiskey, a teaspoon of brown sugar and cream. Assuming the whiskey is 40 percent ABV, your drink will have something like 90 mg of caffeine and 0.6 oz. of alcohol. Now take Four Loko – a 23.5 oz. can at 12 percent ABV has 156 mg of caffeine and 2.82 oz. of alcohol.
To get a “Four Loko effect” with a rum and coke you’d have to drink 4.7 rum and cokes. This would have the same alcohol content as a Four Loko, but you’d lack the caffeine. At only 68.15 mg, it’s less than half the caffeine in a Four Loko.
To equal a Four Loko with an Irish coffee, you’d only have to drink a little less than two Irish coffees. That’s in the caffeine department anyway. To truly equal a Four Loko you would have to pour at least twice as much whiskey into each serving. If that sounds like a strong and probably unappetizing drink, that’s because it is.
Note that to achieve Four Loko-like effects with these drinks you’d have to consume more than one serving of each drink. With Four Loko all you need is one can. Consider, too, that Four Loko is a carbonated beverage, so if it’s not finished in one sitting, it will go flat. It’s all the more encouragement to consume the whole thing and go overboard in mixing caffeine and alcohol.
The comparisons then, between Four Loko and mixed drinks do not hold up, regardless of what Phusion Projects and its fans say.
Caffeine and alcohol won’t send you to the emergency room when used in moderation, but Four Loko is far from moderate. Consumers should have the right to combine caffeine and alcohol if they so choose, but Four Loko does so at levels that are excessive and in the words of the FDA, “unsafe.”