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Red Bull cola controversy stirs cocaine concerns

Red Bull cola, widely available in the United States, was pulled from German shelves.

JOE WALLES | Times

Red Bull cola, widely available in the United States, was pulled from German shelves.

We've come a long way since 1903, when cocaine was banned as a key ingredient in Coca-Cola. Or have we?

Last week, retailers at six German states began clearing their shelves of Red Bull Simply Cola, a soft drink widely available in the United States, including here in the Tampa Bay.

Tests showed the drink contained trace amounts of cocaine, German authorities said.

Red Bull Simply Cola, which became available in the United States after a splashy Las Vegas launch last year, is a cola-flavored spinoff to the popular Swiss-made Red Bull energy drink. It markets itself as "Strong & Natural," containing only natural ingredients such as lemon, ginger and kola nut. It also contains coca leaf, from the same plant that supplies cocaine.

It's really not a big deal, Red Bull manufacturers say. It's not the white powdery stuff; it won't get you high; it won't hurt you.

"Decocainized coca leaf extracts are used as flavoring in food products around the world and are considered to be safe," Red Bull said in a statement Tuesday. It cited a Food and Drug Administration code that lists decocainized coca leaf as a safe, natural extractive.

Coca-Cola lists only "natural flavors" on the can's label. The company historically has kept its ingredients a secret.

Red Bull manufacturers said they "take the German authority's concerns seriously" and had an independent institute test Red Bull Simply Cola, which found that cocaine was not detectable in the drink.

Furthermore, they said, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment found the drink's ingredients posed no health risks and no risk of "undesired pharmacological effects including, any potential narcotic effects."

So why was it banned?

According to German reports, a health institute in a northern German state took a sampling of Red Bull Simply Cola, using a highly sophisticated method of testing. The sample tested positive for cocaine — albeit a tiny 0.13 micrograms in one can.

That was enough to cause some concern in Germany, where the country's strict federal consumer protection agency is doing more tests. Some experts say the Red Bull Simply Cola ban is unnecessary, and the drink could return to shelves after more testing.

Meanwhile, the FDA wasn't aware of any complaints about the drink, nor does it have plans to order a ban in this country.

"We're aware of this news report but do not have any additional information at this time," said FDA spokeswoman Susan Cruzan. "It would not be acceptable for a product marketed in the United States to contain traces of cocaine.''

Linda Casey, a spokeswoman for Speedway SuperAmerica, said she saw news reports about the drink but wasn't sure how it would affect sales at the convenience store and gas chain.

"We didn't know anything about this until we saw the story," Casey said. "Obviously it's something we'll look into, and if there's an issue, we'd pull the product off the shelves."

Hess Corp., whose gas stations also sell Red Bull Simply Cola locally, did not return calls seeking comment.

Whether the ingredient is harmless or not, the question arises as to why Red Bull would use coca leaf at all.

The company claims it is an important natural flavoring, along with the kola nut, for the relatively new drink. Coca leaf is said to have a pungent tea-like taste. In some countries, coca tea and chewed coca leaves are a popular novelty.

Whether it contains any stimulant or narcotic effect is still a matter of debate. According to a report on Time.com, you would have to drink 12,000 liters of Red Bull Simply Cola for negative effects to be felt.

That is, if the caffeine and sugar didn't kill you first.

Times staff writer Stefan Jaeger and various wire services contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at (727) 893-8452 or nipps@sptimes.com.

Red Bull cola controversy stirs cocaine concerns 05/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 3:45pm]
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