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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Red Bull's New Cola: A Kick from Cocaine?

Red Bull Cola
Rolf Vennenbernd / EPA

"The [Health Institute in the state of North Rhine Westphalia] examined Red Bull Cola in an elaborate chemical process and found traces of cocaine," Bernhard Kuehnle, head of the food safety department at Germany's federal ministry for consumer protection, told the German press on Sunday. According to this analysis, the 0.13 micrograms of cocaine per can of the drink does not pose a serious health threat — you'd have to drink 12,000 L of Red Bull Cola for negative effects to be felt — but it was enough to cause concern. Kuehnle's agency is due to give its final verdict on Wednesday when experts publish their report. (See pictures of America's cannabis culture.)

Red Bull has always been upfront about the recipe for its new cola. Its website boasts colorful pictures of coca, cardamom and Kola nuts, along with other key "natural" ingredients. The company insists, however, that coca leaves are used as a flavoring agent only after removing the illegal cocaine alkaloid. "De-cocainized extract of coca leaf is used worldwide in foods as a natural flavoring," said a Red Bull spokesman in response to the German government's announcement. Though the cocaine alkaloid is one of 10 alkaloids in coca leaves and represents only 0.8% of the chemical makeup of the plant, it's removal is mandated by international antinarcotics agencies when used outside the Andean region. (Check out a story on how Bolivia is preaching the virtues of coca culture.)

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. "Let's say [Red Bull Cola] doesn't take out the cocaine alkaloid. Have any of those millions of people across the world who have drunk that soda ever gotten sick or felt drugged?" asks Dionicio Nunez, a coca-growers' leader from the Yungas region. "We've always known that coca isn't harmful. Now maybe others will realize it too."

In Germany, the Red Bull spokesman insisted that his company's product, along with others containing the coca-leaf extract are considered safe in Europe and the U.S. And already, 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. (Read about the anti-Red Bull: a drink that can calm you down.)

Coca leaves, of course, have a long record in modern soda-pop history. Most prominently, there was Coca-Cola whose original 19th century formula used unaltered coca leaves. In the early 1900s the company said it would only use "spent," or decocainized leaves, though the company refuses to confirm whether leaves in any form are still used.

But the problem is when it comes to coca and cocaine, it's not just a health concern, but a legal one. Since 1961, trade of coca outside the Andean region — where people have chewed or brewed coca in tea to stave off hunger and exhaustion for centuries — has been prohibited unless the cocaine alkaloid is removed. Few companies in the world have authorization to trade in the leaf and most are pharmaceutical companies that perform this decocainizing process. The most prominent is New Jersey-based Stepan Chemical Company which has been reported to supply Coca-Cola with its narcotic-free derivative.

But no one knows where Red Bull Cola's coca leaves come from or where they are processed. Red Bull did not respond to immediate requests for comment and Rauch Trading AG, the Austria-based food company that actually manufactures Red Bull Cola was quick to tell TIME that they are not allowed to speak about the product. Meanwhile, Bolivia, which has lots of coca leaves to sell, is getting a kick out of the fact Red Bull Cola admits to using coca in any form (since Coca-Cola evades the question). Ironically, the drink is not actually available yet in Bolivia. But, the locals say, this is a great opportunity to show that coca isn't harmful — with or without the cocaine alkaloid. With Reporting by Tristana Moore/Berlin