Red Bull Gives You…Cocaine Degradation Products?!!?

shutterstock_12619150Boing Boing (always a purveyor of the finest in science news) posted an item yesterday that makes me scratch my head. Six states in Germany have pulled Red Bull Cola, a new-ish product from the company that makes Red Bull energy drink, from store shelves after tests from the Health Institute in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia found 0.4mg/L of cocaine in the beverage. A lot of news outlets covered this story, but after reading a few passages from Time magazine's story about the recall, I got confused, so now I'm not sure what's really going on. The story seems to be missing a couple of key pieces of information that I'd like to try to obtain. Read the snippets from Time's article below and judge for yourselves. "..some experts have come to Red Bull's defense. "There is no scientific basis for this ban on Red Bull Cola because the levels of cocaine found are so small," Fritz Soergel, the head of the Institute for Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Research in the city of Nuremberg, tells TIME. "And it's not even cocaine itself. According to the tests we carried out, it's a nonactive degradation product with no effect on the body. If you start examining lots of other drinks and food so carefully, you'd find a lot of surprising things," he says." Wait- is there cocaine in the drink or not? Soergel's quotes appear to contradict each other. Nuremberg is in the German state of Bavaria, so this Institute appears to be conducting tests independently of the North Rhine Westphalia folks. What tests are they conducting? There's also this passage: "Meanwhile, in Bolivia, halfway around the world and smack in the middle of the Andes, the controversy is causing chuckles. Coca is a fundamental part of Andean culture and for years, Bolivians have tried to get the world to understand that the leaf is not a drug if it's not put through the extensive chemical process that yields cocaine. Left-wing President Evo Morales, a coca-grower himself, has made coca validation a personal quest, chewing leaves in front of world leaders and press cameras during his travels." I thought cocaine was already in the coca plant. If that's the case, you don't need an "extensive chemical process" to get at it- that phrasing implies you need to make chemical changes to compounds in the plant to make cocaine. I thought it was just an isolation. Am I wrong? Maybe they mean that the cocaine's not concentrated enough to do much until you isolate it? If the latter is the case...why isn't the leaf a drug, exactly? According to the TIME article, many food products still use coca leaves as natural flavorings, but only after the cocaine is somehow removed. What is this removal process? Could something hypothetically go wrong and therefore leave you with a batch of cola that still contains cocaine? Today, the Health Institute is planning to publish a more complete report on their analysis, and I'll be watching for it. UPDATE 5/29: I found a report about this at Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). So far, it's only available in German. I am curious whether it corroborates the statement attributed to the BfR in news reports like this one, where it says the BfR believes that the amount of cocaine in Red Bull Cola doesn't pose a health threat. I don't really have the inclination to try to use an online translator on a document this long. If somebody out there can translate, go to town. Image:Shutterstock

Author: Carmen Drahl

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  1. I don’t really claim to understand the isolation chemistry, but it sounds like a matter of getting the right salt form (or lack thereof, as the free base), as there appears to be differences in bioavailability.

    P.S. Mark Kleiman ( is a blogging professor of public policy (UCLA) and quite an expert on drugs and drug policy. Maybe he knows?

    From the Wikipedia article:

    Coca leaves are typically mixed with an alkaline substance (such as lime) and chewed into a wad that is retained in the mouth between gum and cheek (much in the same as chewing tobacco is chewed) and sucked of its juices. The juices are absorbed slowly by the mucous membrane of the inner cheek and by the gastrointestinal tract when swallowed. Alternatively, coca leaves can be infused in liquid and consumed like tea. Ingesting coca leaves generally is an inefficient means of administering cocaine. Advocates of the consumption of the coca leaf state that coca leaf consumption should not be criminalized as it is not actual cocaine, and consequently it is not properly the illicit drug. Because cocaine is hydrolyzed and rendered inactive in the acidic stomach, it is not readily absorbed when ingested alone. Only when mixed with a highly alkaline substance (such as lime) can it be absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach. The efficiency of absorption of orally administered cocaine is limited by two additional factors. First, the drug is partly catabolized by the liver. Second, capillaries in the mouth and esophagus constrict after contact with the drug, reducing the surface area over which the drug can be absorbed. Nevertheless, cocaine metabolites can be detected in the urine of subjects that have sipped even one cup of coca leaf infusion. Therefore, this is an actual additional form of administration of cocaine, albeit an inefficient one.

  2. If there is no M/Z of 303 than you must set the Red Bull free.

  3. Thanks for suggesting Kleiman- I was going to try to reach some of the folks in Germany- we’ll see whether they respond. I should’ve remembered that the term “free base” has made it into the vernacular..
    Have you been saving that one up for long, Mitch? 🙂

  4. Hah! They don’t like cocaine in their drinks but they’re fine with whatever it is in diet sodas that causes intense allergic reactions that require you to go to the doctor on your first day in the country?

    Oh Germany, I heart thee.

  5. Whoa… what?! This sounds like you speak from personal experience, Ken. Do tell.

  6. What I’m wondering about is “decocainized” coca leaves or extracts, which I take to mean that coca leaves have been somehow treated to remove cocaine but not the other alkaloids. So whoever is doing the decocainizing, what does it do to the cocaine it removes? Is this activity being monitored by DEA?

  7. Maureen, that’s one thing I’m trying to figure out.. I assume that the process is not a separation that would leave you with cocaine + the rest of the coca leaf. (I imagine you’d have to have VERY trustworthy workers at your plant if it were in fact a separation). I figured it was some sort of chemical treatment that would destroy the cocaine in the coca leaf. Perhaps the word “remove” in the TIME article is misleading…


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