19 March 2012

Unhealthful News 207 - Red Bull RIP (but it's still not about the caffeine)

I have five somewhat complicated posts I would really like to write, so naturally I am going to take the easy way out and write a quick and easy one based on today's news.

The inventor of Red Bull (the original Thai concoction, as well as canned phenomenon), Chaleo Yoovidhya, died.  Sorry, no irony about it being sudden cardiac death at an early age -- he lived a full life and sounds like he was generally an impressive guy.

Not so impressive is the press's persistence in talking about his invention as if it were about caffeine.  For example, this NYT article.  At least there is some mention of the what is really different (and perhaps risky) about the drink, though it was subordinated to the caffeine:
...a beverage that was loaded with caffeine, as well as an amino acid called taurine and a carbohydrate called glucuronolactone.
However, this appeared in the third paragraph after caffeine (only) was already highlighted in the first paragraph and was emphasized again later.

Those of you who remember my posts about Four Loko and other alcoholic versions of Red Bull will recall me railing about the proposed pathetic, silly, paranoid, out-of-touch, unscientific prohibitionist proposals (we need a name for the construct "pathetic, silly, paranoid, out-of-touch, unscientific prohibitionist" -- it is rather unwieldy but it comes up so often), which focused on the combination of caffeine and alcohol.  The politicians, commentators, and, yes, the health reporters seemed completely oblivious to the fact that what made these drinks different from any other soda were those other stimulants -- you know, the ones for which we do not have billions of person-years of data about the effects.

The Red Bull obituary author, as is typical, seems to think it is mainly about the caffeine.  Twice as much as in Coke!  Wow, hold on to your socks if you drink that.  It will be like what happens when you tell a waiter "I'll have another Coke".  And you know that once you do that, you will probably finish the evening at an all-night dance party, screaming at the top of your lungs -- unless your heart explodes first.

Or, put another way, that much caffeine is like having a cup of coffee as you sit down at your desk in the morning. 

At least this article gets credit for mentioning the other stimulants, the ones that are the difference between Red Bull and coffee.  NYT obit writers are rather better than most health reporters.  Still, it would have been nice to see something about health other than one throw-away sentence that invokes an old newspaper article that warned about mixing Red Bull with vodka.

Can you imagine an obituary about someone involved with inventing or promoting snus or e-cigarettes not spending paragraphs about the controversy and made-up health claims?  And yet everything we know suggests that Red Bull is probably more hazardous for your health than either of those products.  We will presumably never have definitive epidemiology to support that claim, but the smart money would be on that conclusion if we had a sealed envelope from an omniscient being who could settle the bet.

Of course, if Mr. Chaleo had become the 205th richest man in the world (yes, really) in part by selling an alcoholic version of Red Bull, rather than leaving that innovation to others, you can bet that the danger of that evil product would have been the focus of his obituaries.  I really do hope that taurine and glucuronolactone and other under-studied stimulants are not damaging anyone's cardiovascular system, but I am pessimistic enough that I am going to stick with the well-studied drugs -- i.e., all the other ones that are mentioned in this post.

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