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Red Bull, Rockstar and Now Pimp Juice? Buzz-Infused Energy Drinks are a Window Into Young Men's Fantasies

Why pay $3 for the same buzz that could be brewed for pennies at home? Because of all the virility and vigor promised by exotic-sounding ingredients.
 
 
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Red Bull and Rockstar aren't the only energy drinks. Check out Pimp Juice.

"Pimp Juice, currently only available in the Extra Strength formula, is a healthy, carbonated energy drink possessing a tropical berry flavor," reads its Web site. "Pimp Juice’s artificial coloring gives it a smooth neon green glow, while its 10% apple juice content adds a natural sweetness."

Hip-hop superstar Nelly co-owns the company that makes it. Another hip-hop star, Lil Jon, is affiliated with the energy drink called Crunk!!!

"Hell naw -- the game done changed," reads its site. "Lil Jon got his own drink? With the crunkest of rappers makin’ a come up like this, hip hop artists will soon be wantin’ to have their own ice cream cones and toothpaste flavors. We takin’ ova!"

Energy drinks, along with the words and pictures used to sell them, are windows onto young men's worlds: their real worlds and those mental realms that, based on scientific research, marketers call "desired worlds" -- where young men go, what they buy, what they want. Young men are driving the $6 billion energy-drink industry. Sixty-five percent of energy-drink consumers are males aged 13 to 35. Twenty percent of American males claim to consume energy drinks regularly.

Where do they go? To music venues, such as the Mayhem Festival set to tour the country this summer; its top sponsor is Rockstar, which sponsors other music and sporting events all year, every year, worldwide. After a qualifying finish at the international Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme MX1 World Championship in the Netherlands last month (April), Belgian champion Steve Ramon "hoisted the Rockstar Energy Drink can on the podium," we read at the racing magazine Paddock Talk. This month (May), Australia will witness the 2010 Rockstar Energy Drink MX Nationals. Venom Energy is the "official energy drink" of a Texas football team. Last month (April), fans received $6 off game tickets for every empty Venom can they displayed.

Energy drinks aren't new. Debuting in 1885, Coca-Cola contained coca leaves. But these days, fast, hard, macho sports are part of an energy-drink landscape whose language and scenery are violent, racy, risky and intriguingly gender-specific, where products are named Bawls, Ammo, B52, Enorm, Atomic Blast, Banzai, Death Adder, Damzl Fuel, Sin, Greed, NeuroGasm, Adrenalyn, Xtazy, WhoopAss. The drink called Blood is sold in hospital-style plastic blood bags. It's a landscape populated by hot chicks in bikinis and high heels who finger cans and bottles you-know-how and you-know-where, looking exuberant as liquid spurts.

And what do young men buy? They buy caffeine.

Disguised with skulls, snake eyes and lightning bolts, energy drinks are delivery vessels for caffeine — as much of it in a single can of Blade or Blow as in two and a half cups of coffee. Some brands list caffeine among their ingredients. Some list guarana, a plant common in Brazil whose fruit contains twice the caffeine found in coffee beans. As for what else is in them, read labels and you'll see the same exact ingredients in most: pantothenic acid, milk thistle, ginseng, amino acids such as arginine and taurine.

Like several other brands, Crunk!!! contains an herb commonly known as horny goat weed that is alleged to improve male sexual performance. A timeline on Crunk!!!'s website tells us: "800 BC: Horny Goat Weed Discovered. Oh Lawd. Peep the goats gettin' nasty off the weed. Farmers dub the plant after the outlandish sexual behavior of farm animals."

These non-caffeine ingredients "are just totally irrelevant," says Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who runs Quackwatch.org. "They're just added to the drinks to make the drinks look like there's more stuff in them. Taking amino acids won't give you energy. Pantothenic acid is a vitamin. It has nothing to do with energy. Milk thistle may have some benefit to the liver, but that's its only scientific application. It's not something people should take for energy." Studies in the West have not yet produced conclusive evidence that ginseng improves athletic and sexual performance, as Chinese medicine has claimed for millennia.

Taurine "supports neurological development and helps regulate the level of water and mineral salts in the blood," notes Mayo Clinic nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky. "Some studies suggest that taurine supplementation may improve athletic performance, which may explain why taurine is used in many energy drinks. Other studies suggest that taurine and caffeine act together to improve athletic and perhaps even mental performance, although this finding remains controversial. ... Little is known about the effects of heavy or long-term taurine use."

Young men want ... energy. For what? Watching NASCAR and motocross and concerts doesn't take much. What will they do with all this vigor? What will they do for it?

They'll pay $3 for the same buzz that could be brewed for pennies at home. They'll pay because this buzz, the canned or bottled buzz, is called Superfly or Freek and is adorned with images of death or sex. They'll pay because, in many cases, they are children used to buying cold sweet carbonated drinks. They'll pay because this is the ever-loving adolescent dream come true: the legal high. Frappuccino might induce energy, but Frappuccino is so femme. Hot coffee doesn't come in cans called "bullets."

Hot coffee can't be chugged.

The clubbiness in the ad campaigns, the bright pictures of parties and almost-exposed breasts reveals a cynicism even more profound than that of those who sell liquor or cigarettes or crack: At least they don't pretend they're selling something else. "Behind every slam dunk, fast break and awesome assist, you'll find the insanely healthy energy drink that keeps the fans in the game all day long," reads the Web site for Verve! drinks. "In an office, on the job, on a mountain, riding waves, doin’ flips, doin’ tricks, jammin’ all night, crammin’ all night, whatever your life calls for, Rip It is there to fuel you," reads the Rip It site.

How stupid do energy-drink makers think young men are?

How stupid are young men?

These drinks don't buy themselves.

But hey: After a while, it's not entirely a choice. Like liquor, cigarettes and crack, caffeine is habit-forming. A landmark 2004 study led by Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist Roland Griffiths found that even one standard cup of coffee a day can produce a caffeine addiction whose withdrawal symptoms include headache, fatigue, depression, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and "flu-like symptoms of nausea, vomiting and muscle pain or stiffness." The symptoms' severity increases with the amounts of caffeine regularly consumed, but abstinence from even 100 milligrams a day can induce them. The study also found that, just as in other addictions, the dread of experiencing withdrawal symptoms prompts caffeine drinkers to drink more caffeine. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the master resource used by millions of medical professionals worldwide, cites four caffeine-induced conditions: caffeine intoxication, caffeine-induced anxiety disorder, caffeine-induced sleep disorder and caffeine-related disorder not otherwise specified (NOS).

Bill Aaronson was a caffeine addict. This spokesman for the Caffeine Awareness Association favored not energy drinks but 64-ounce convenience-store Pepsis and Cokes.

"I thought it was normal. I couldn't figure out why I was having heart palpitations and anxiety. I couldn't figure out why, after feeling alert and energized, I would then feel so depressed." Neither could his doctors, Aaronson says. Finally he made the connection, and quit -- a torturous process.

CAA is currently working on a project that would result in accurate reportage of actual caffeine quantities in energy drinks and other caffeinated beverages.

"These drinks' labels are misleading. We're trying to create a way for people to find the truth," Aaronson says.

The risk of caffeine addiction starts in utero and continues through breastfeeding, he adds. "If the mother is drinking Red Bull, the baby's drinking it too. Children are the vulnerable ones. To a kid's eyes, coffee doesn't come in attractive packages, but energy drinks do. These cans look like video games, and that's done on purpose. Kids think they're cool, and kids are the ultimate victims."

Because the FDA classifies nearly all energy drinks as food, no age restrictions are required for their purchase or use. A 6-year-old could buy Ammo or Vamp. As "food" products, energy drinks are not required to reveal on their labels how much caffeine they contain. Only those few drinks that market themselves as dietary supplements require age restrictions and special labeling.

"FDA regulates so-called energy drinks as food just like any other food product on the market," explains the agency's press officer, Michael Herndon. "As such, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, foods must be pure and wholesome, contain no harmful or deleterious substances, and be truthfully labeled. The term 'energy drink' is not specifically defined in the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Therefore, these types of drinks are difficult to fit into one category because it depends on how they are marketed. ... FDA has not addressed what the terms 'energy' or 'energizer' mean and what characteristics a product or ingredient must possess in order to use the terms."

Clever. What is this thing called energy? When I was a university freshman a few decades back, energy was a euphemism for cocaine. My roommate clipped the word "energy" out of newspapers and magazines and glued the clippings to her desk and cupboard doors. From a wealthy ex-boss, she received weekly cocaine parcels in the mail, fat Ziploc bags hidden in padded Hallmark cards. When these arrived, she phoned her friends and giggled, I've got energy! Want energy?

And those who did were hip in that hilarious, sexy, skinny, stimulant-chiseled way, their thighs not meeting in the middle. In those days, borders were clearer between drugs and not-drugs, high and not-high. Energy drinks are now neither and both. Their clinical-sounding and exotic ingredients convince some drinkers that they're radical and pharmaceutical, the cutting edge of brain science, on par with MRIs. ("It’s Rx for the Cortex," reads the homepage for Antimatter drinks. "It hones and sharpens the mind.") The same ingredients convince other drinkers they're rock stars. Or pimps.

One energy drink is actually called Cocaine. The name appears in powdery white on bright red and blue cans. "Do you want to see more of our spokesmodel Michelle?" asks Cocaine's Web site. "Do you think Michelle is awesome?"

Megacorporations have leaped into the game: Coca Cola, Starbucks, Hooters and Playboy have all introduced energy drinks. According to the John Hopkins study, annual worldwide energy-drink consumption  increased 17 percent between 2005 and 2006. Sales grew a whopping 39 percent between 2006 and 2007, according to the leading market-research firm Mintel. Nearly 500 new energy-drink brands were launched worldwide in 2006, with 200 new brands launched between mid-2006 and mid-2007 in the U.S. alone. Mintel's prognosticators attributed a subsequent drop-off in sales to the fact that construction workers and other blue-collar workers, a former industry mainstay, have been losing their jobs.

Where, then, to find new fans? Hmm: Who else besides construction workers might want to get hyped and amped?

College students are the energy-drink industry's ace in the hole. Relatively undaunted by the collapsed economy, they quaff the drinks to stay awake while studying and after all-nighters, just as their predecessors popped No-Doz. Half of the students surveyed in a 2007 East Carolina University study drank at least two cans or bottles at a stretch while studying: This much caffeine, the study read, "can easily far exceed the amount necessary to promote cognitive functioning."

But it's not just about functioning. It's about "having fun, kicking butt and making a difference," as a past campaign for Boo Koo Beverages promised. Energy-drink companies sponsor campus concerts and parties and have helped students make a national craze of energy-drink cocktails such as the Jager bomb (Jagermeister and Red Bull) and the Grassy Knoll (apple vodka and Monster). Crunk!!! has a running competition for "Crunktail" recipes; past winners include the Crunker and the Crunkapolitan.

"Such combined use," ventures the Johns Hopkins study, "may increase the rate of alcohol-related injury." Ya think?

"Represent Crunk!!! on your college campus!!!" the drink company's Web site begs. "Introduce your friends to Crunk!!! Host Crunk!!! events! Become the Crunk-Master of your campus!!!" Participants in its "College Ambassador Program" are promised "free Crunk!!! Stix for finals." A hundred milligrams of caffeine is in each of these three-gram packets of powder, to be poured onto tongues Pixy Stix-style.

Wherever young men go, so do energy drinks. The Radioactive Energy Drink Bus Tour sent a 45-foot luxury bus sporting the company's hazard-symbol logo and "Catch the glow!" slogan to nightclubs nationwide, hosting ''glow parties'' featuring spokesmodels, reality-TV stars, go-go dancers and DJs. On the USC campus last year, Radioactive sponsored Global Game Jam, a 48-hour marathon video-game competition.

Gamers are prime energy-drink targets, and some drinks are made just for them. Mountain Dew scheduled the releases of its Game Fuel drinks to promote Halo 3 and World of Warcraft. Ryan Van Cleave, whose memoir Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video-Game Addiction will be published next month, was a steady customer during those addled years when his entire life was devoted to World of Warcraft.

"I simply drank the heck out of Rockstar and various high-energy ginseng drinks to the tune of about three liters a day," Van Cleave says. "What happens is that you end up skipping meals. ... Sure, you can choke down a Hot Pocket or some beef jerky once in a while since it's all portable, but most serious gamers I know simply chug soda and down energy drinks like they own stock in the manufacturing company," says Van Cleave, who remembers watching individual gamers downing entire 12-packs of Red Bull in single gaming sessions. The "massive crash" always came later.

"It wasn't uncommon for me during my heavy gaming years to pull a 30-hour session -- fueled primarily through energy drinks -- and then follow it with a 15-hour 'nap.'"

Meanwhile, Pimp Juice offers free song downloads. "Shake Ya Caboose" is playingright now.

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, most recently The Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009). Read more of Anneli's writings on scavenging at scavenging.wordpress.com.
 
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