October 27, 2010

What's so worrisome about caffeine + alcohol drinks?

Here's an NYT story about rising concern over drinks that are basically energy drinks mixed with alcohol. Although I'm not a regular drinker, I still remember one of the most enjoyable drinks I've ever had was an Irish coffee. I'd never heard of it before, but a bunch of us in Barcelona were out for a long night, so the idea of loosening up with booze while keeping my energy going with coffee was an easy sell. I don't recall anything like what the article says about the effects of "alcopop" drinks. Plus, when I went dancing twice a week in Barcelona they gave you a ticket for one drink when you paid to enter, and I would always get a Cuba libre, again never experiencing anything like the alcopop effects.

Clearly there is something else about drinks like Four Loko, Joose, Sparks, Tilt, etc., since just caffeine and alcohol won't produce the effects. Whenever there's junk food with particularly destructive effects, it will always be due to one of two ingredients -- empty carbs (like sugar) or cheap vegetable oils (like soybean). Obviously in this case it must be sugar. I do remember getting weird while drinking a Monster energy drink every morning for the 2007-08 school year, or a store-bought Frappuccino almost every day in the years before that. These are both full of sugar.

After some googling, yep, that's it. One can of alcopop has anywhere from 30 to 190 grams of carbs, all digestible, most or all of it sugars. For comparison, a candy bar usually has around 30 grams. A mixed drink with Coke only has so much of it, not a whole can, so you're probably only getting 10 grams. A shot of Baileys, which also has sweeteners, still only has 11 grams. And that Irish coffee I drank apparently had 1 tsp or merely 5 grams of brown sugar -- I couldn't even taste it and only learned this from looking up the recipe.

You might think that the alcopops are being targeted because they're mainly consumed by younger and lower-status people, but then so is rum and Coke, which doesn't cause the same worries. Explanations based on pop cynicism, being so knee-jerk, are rarely right. Here it seems like there is something different about the effects of alcopop drinks, and it's almost surely due to the pounds of sugar they have.

I think this also underlies what many view as a qualitatively different drinking culture among young people over the past 20 or so years -- the antics of "binge drinking" on campuses in particular. It's not as if getting blindingly drunk is new -- in fact, old. And it used to be more prevalent and tolerated. But with the wussification of society in the past roughly 20 years, young people have switched their drinking culture to one that relies so heavily on saccharine drinks that happen to have some alcohol hidden in there somewhere. Everything involving hard liquor now is ___ and Coke, ___ and one of a cornucopia of fruit juices, or god help us even ___ and Kool-Aid.

My impression of the earlier drinking culture of young people is that it wasn't so dependent on sugary drinks, except in the unusual case of someone spiking the punch bowl at a school dance. At least in TV and movies, you see them with bottles and shot glasses and flasks (and beer of course), not rows of soda and fruit juice jugs. So, while they were getting plastered, they were not also getting the unique combination of frenzy and irritability that comes from a sugar rush (and eventual sugar crash). Merely adding caffeine won't yield those effects either; it just puts some pep in your step. That's probably why young heavy drinkers from circa 1975 looked more like jovial party animals, while those of today come off as neurotic trainwrecks.


  1. The problem with these drinks (as far as the media sees) is actually the large amount of alcohol in them. While "binge drinking" may be an old phenomena as you state I think the latest concerns came out of the recent case in a US college where it was young women who were getting plastered on the stuff - to the point that they were so wrecked they thought they had been "roofied"...

  2. No, its not new. Fifty or more years ago my friends and I would waste ourselves with vodka Nikolaschkas.

  3. I think whats going on just falls into part of your wild times v safe times. Young people are actually drinking less and being less wild but people are complaining about it more. I think the focus on the type of drink is only a distraction from the larger issue at hand.

    - Breeze

  4. just another case of people passing the blame onto the manufacturer instead of taking personal responsibility for binging on booze.

    Why would the girls be responsible for over drinking? it obviously was the nasty male manufacturer who is to blame, he practically dumped the alcohol down their throats!
    My god, how can yo expect a girl to know when too much is too much? they aren't responsible for their own poor judgment, everyone else is!

  5. I didn't do much binge drinking in college, but here are two specific drinks I remember from college (late 80s): the night someone down the hall brought Everclear, and we sat around doing capfuls (about 1cc) straight. Eventually, he dumped about 5 ounces left over in with a can of coke and drank that. Also, at a Chemistry department party, one carton pineapple juice, one carton orange juice, one bottle vodka. You could *barely* taste the alcohol, but it was still about as strong as wine.

  6. Rum and Cokes have the reputation with bar owners as being a fighting drink. In contrast, beer is more sedating.


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