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Message in a bottle 

Students down it to pull all-night study sessions, office workers to put in 100-hour work weeks, truck drivers to go the extra kilometres and even partygoers to dance until dawn. Caffeine, one of the world’s most commonly used psychoactive drugs—meaning it affects a person’s mind, mood or behaviour—can now be found in a consortium of exotic brightly-coloured drink cans, prominently displayed at your nearest corner store.

Open the door to the ceiling-high refrigerator at any Needs Convenience and you’re as likely to find a caffeine-packed can of Red Bull, Monster Energy, Full Throttle or NoFear—and typical claims like the drink will “invigorate the mind and body” and deliver “an immediate and sustained energy boost” or “the extra kick you need to get your second, third or fourth wind”—as your revered Pepsi Cola or Nestle Iced Tea.

Our fascination with the newest breed of caffeinated drinks blossomed last summer after Health Canada changed its labelling rules for health products. The way was paved for Red Bull and other manufacturers to sell and promote their energy drinks as “natural health products.”

While Red Bull is the only energy drink that’s been approved so far, that doesn’t mean the others are banned from the corner store or from encouraging the idea energy drinks are healthy. Dozens of e-drinks are now available in Canada, with the big-name manufacturers jumping into the potentially lucrative market: the Coca-Cola Company launched Full Throttle earlier this year, and PepsiCo distributes SoBe’s line of energy drinks.

Although each drink has a slightly different makeup, most of them are a mixture of sugar, B vitamins, taurine (an amino acid) and natural products, such as ginseng. Some, like SoBe’s NoFear, also contain creatine, another amino acid that is stored in muscle cells for quick bursts of energy. And, of course, there’s also caffeine and/or guarana, a natural source of caffeine.

Despite promises of “giving people wings right from the start” and “vitalizing the body and mind,” e-drinks aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel.

Caffeine has been around for a long time, with its stimulating effects known since the 15th century when coffee beans were shipped from present-day Sudan and cultivated in Arabia. People have been consuming caffeine, either in coffee or tea, to keep them from falling asleep on the job since the industrial revolution, when workers had to stay alert over the large, injury-prone machinery of 19th-century Europe.

Energy drink manufacturers say their products are different from frothy caramel-laced lattes and other cafe offerings. They claim it’s the combination of all their ingredients that creates an e-drink’s high-energy effect. Yet caffeine is the only ingredient in the can consistently shown to increase arousal, alertness, concentration, mood and physical endurance.

Red Bull credits taurine as a main energy-producing ingredient in its drink, but whether it improves concentration, mood and physical performance is doubtful at best, with most studies showing benefits of taurine only when used in combination with caffeine. Many researchers say the improvements may come from caffeine alone and not the amino acid.

Energy drinks may be just the latest form of packaging, a new way of presenting our much-adored caffeine. Red Bull, Monster Energy and all the others are the yoga, the stiletto heel, of 2005.

No energy drink is more visible in Canada than Red Bull. From sponsoring a wide array of extreme sporting events to becoming a player in the worldwide Formula 1 car racing series to dispatching “mobile energy teams” from coast to coast, Red Bull’s marketing campaign is big and impressive.

While the company chooses not to comment on its marketing practices, Chantal Chretien, Red Bull’s director of communications, wrote in an email, “We approach our marketing efforts in a non-conventional way.” In other words, the company does not rely on traditional adverts to get its message across.

Steve Scott, a graphic designer in Halifax, says he knocked back his first energy drink after Red Bull reps visited his downtown office and dropped off several cases—free of charge—for him and his co-workers. Not exactly Tim Hortons’ style of marketing, but the impromptu visit worked. Since then, Scott says he occasionally buys the drink to get a quick pick-me-up when he needs it.

“I think it really does work,” he says. “It’s not a long effect, more like 20 or 30 minutes, but it’s super good for somebody who wants an edge for an hour or so.”

An edge—to meet that looming deadline or get revved up for a late-night hockey game. That’s the allure the companies are creating.

For years, scientists have studied caffeine’s effects in labs and real-life situations, with the agreement being caffeine keeps us awake and helps us perform a number of work-related tasks, even under extreme exhaustion. The drug acts as a stimulant by slowing down a natural depressant, adenosine, in our bodies, helping us stay awake and feel alert. In doing so, it improves certain types of performance—reaction speed and vigilance (or being able to maintain your attention) being two of them.

A number of well-designed studies from the Canadian and US militaries show caffeine improves mental and physical performance in cold, exercise-fatigued and sleep-deprived soldiers. Caffeine has also been shown to increase exercise performance, both for long and short bouts, since the 1970s. Though scientists don’t agree on how it does this, caffeine consistently lowers a person’s perception of effort, meaning that maybe the wonder drug allows us to work longer and harder because we just don’t feel as tired.

That’s one of the many reasons for our culture’s obsession with caffeine—the jolt, the satisfying boost of energy we get after drinking a strong cup of coffee.

There’s another reason we faithfully buy our imported Costa Rican-grown beans. Caffeine, like many other psychoactive compounds, is addictive. In a study published last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University reviewed more than 170 years of caffeine research and concluded caffeine addiction is for real. “Caffeine withdrawal” is even expected to be included in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of mental illnesses. According to the researchers, people who drink just one cup of coffee a day can end up with headaches, drowsiness, irritability and difficulty concentrating if they don’t get their usual fix.

Caffeine can also cause problems when it’s consumed in very high amounts—equal to about five cans of Red Bull, three cans of Monster Energy or five cups of perked coffee, though the amount of caffeine in coffee varies widely. When that happens, the usual side effects are nervousness, nausea, anxiety, tremors and irritability.

That means knocking back too much caffeine could actually interfere with your performance. So less may be more during those late nights at the library cubicle or the office boardroom.

While students face stacks of oversized textbooks and all-night study sessions, club-goers have other reasons for gulping back an energy drink. They want to party all night long.

Although Red Bull carries warnings on its label that it should not be used with alcohol, Red Bull and vodka is a common drink in many Halifax bars, allowing people to dance and socialize well into the morning hours.

But for those drinking these refreshments away from the gym or dance floor, the extra calories may very well add up. A study from New Zealand found that women who consumed energy drinks end up converting more sugar to fat than women who drank an equal amount of sugary lemonade (without the caffeine). Other research has shown that caffeine helps our body absorb sugar, so for those people not doing a lot of exercise, the added caffeine may lead to more of that sugar turning into fat. Since caffeine is used to help people lose weight, it’s not exactly what many of us think about when reaching for our Red Bull and vodka.

Uncertainty over energy drinks, however, hasn’t stopped the scores of people from grabbing a can before a late-night cramming session or an intense workout. More than 1.9 billion cans of Red Bull were consumed worldwide last year alone. But with less than one percent of Canada’s beverage market, energy drinks have a long way to go before competing with coffee as the pick-me-up of choice for most consumers.“I think tea or coffee might be better over the long run,” says Steve Scott. “But the logo is catchy. It’s all in the packaging.”

In our caffeine-crazed world, that could be exactly what its manufacturers are going for.

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