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Worrisome drinks blend caffeine, booze and sugar


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Date published: 6/20/2010

BY KAITLIN MAYHEW

First Sgt. Nancy Morin keeps alcoholic energy drinks on her desk at work--not because she drinks them, but because she hopes someone will ask her about them, particularly parents.

The drinks--with cool-sounding names such as Joose and Four Loko--look a lot like the caffeinated energy drinks that are so popular with young adults.

But some of the drinks are loaded not just with caffeine, but with as much alcohol as you'd find in four beers.

"Most parents are shocked to find that they are alcohol because of the packaging," said Morin of the Stafford County Sheriff's Office. "They look just like the regular energy drinks, and they are sold right next to them."

The drinks come in enticing flavors such as watermelon, blue raspberry and fruit punch. They're classified as beer under Virginia law, and sold at convenience stores such as the William Street Market in Fredericksburg.

The manager there said the drinks--especially those with the highest alcohol content--are extremely popular among young customers.

"College kids love them," he said, asking not to be named. "They go out in threes and fours."

TRYING TO CRACK DOWN

For many years, Sparks, made by MillerCoors, was one of the most widely recognized alcoholic energy drinks. It boasted a fizzy orange flavor, 6 percent to 8 percent alcohol and 215 milligrams of caffeine.

But in 2008, a group of attorneys general from states including California and New Mexico reached an agreement with MillerCoors to remove the caffeine from Sparks.

Sparks is now strictly alcoholic, stripping it of the ability to keep people awake and active who might otherwise get drowsy from the alcohol.

As part of the deal, the company also agreed to stop targeting a young audience in its ad campaigns.

But the deal had an unintended result: Several new alcoholic energy drinks appeared on the market, notably Joose and Four Loko. Put out by United Brands and Phusion Products, respectively, these drinks have higher alcohol contents than Sparks and an undisclosed amount of caffeine.

Since the drinks are not regulated by the FDA, the makers are not required to say how much caffeine they contain.

THE APPEAL

The drinks are "hugely popular" among young adults, said Michael Emmons, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University.


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Along with alcohol and caffeine, ingredients commonly found in alcoholic energy drinks include ginseng, guarana and taurine.

Taurine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the body. Guarana is a small berry that has one of the highest caffeine contents of all plants (7 percent).

Ginseng has been used for thousands of years in Asian culture and is thought to be useful as an aphrodisiac, as well as for treatment of Type 2 diabetes. However, there has never been significant scientific evidence to support its use.

"I don't know if it's safe to be drinking it in such quantities," local registered dietitian Nancy Farrell said.

Farrell said the effects of these ingredients have not been sufficiently studied and their effects in large quantities--and mixed with alcohol and caffeine--need further review before they could be deemed safe to consume.

-Kaitlin Mayhew