How Energy Drinks Through the Ages Have Gotten Humanity JACKED UP

In Depth

Humans need stimulants, and we’re always on the lookout for better ones. Of course that’s what calories and sugar and protein are for, but when it comes to getting shit done, we’re at our best when drinking coffee, chewing coca, or having made sure to get enough vitamin B.

But humans are also weird and judgmental, so our stimulants must be the right ones. Telling someone you can’t start your day without your morning line of cocaine will get you sent straight to NA, but taking coffee or black tea with breakfast has long been an entirely accepted mode of drug use. It’s a universal human constant: We like our energy fixes. And now, we love our energy drinks.

What does it mean to call something an “energy drink”? You soak leaves in water and caffeine comes out, but green tea never gets the label. Part of it has to do with advertising. The sugar in Kool-aid will hype you up, but the point of Kool-aid is not to give you energy as much as it to be cheaper than juice and also serve as a temporary hair dye. Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy, Monster, and the rest, however, all exist specifically to JACK YOU UP. Their advertising campaigns barely even mention things like taste or enjoyment, the primary concerns for most foodstuffs.

Energy drinks aren’t about enjoyment. Energy drinks are for doing energy.

There came a point, sometime between the mid-19th century and the 1960s, when the “energy” started to come before the “drink.” But we’ve been chasing legal highs since long before that. Energy drinks are the fun of speed without the stress of finding it, a way to get the most energy possible without sliding into “taboo” territory. Another way to define the category is to think of the drinks that seem, even if briefly, one step ahead of regulation and legitimate medical worry—whether fears of mixing cocaine and wine, or worries over the long term effects of taurine. And as governments and regulatory agencies clutch their pearls over ingredient lists, making energy drinks label themselves up and down with safety warnings, or ban them outright, energy drinks have even winked at their status, taking pride in being just on the side of legal. Hell, there is an energy drink straight up called Cocaine.

To track the history of the modern energy drink, we track its ingredients, the most common of which is caffeine. It is often noted that caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world. It’s found in coffee beans, tea leaves and cocoa and kola nuts, and in 1819 a chemist named
Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was able to isolate the active ingredient of caffeine from some coffee beans, apparently on a dare from Goethe. From then, it soon became possible to intentionally add caffeine to pills and beverages. Though caffeine was hardly the only drug used.

In 1863, chemist Angelo Mariani created Vin Mariani, a combination of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves (you know, where cocaine comes from). As you can imagine, it was an instant hit. Advertisements promised to “restore health and vitality,” cure malaria, and be “especially adapted to children.” Many believed in the medicinal properties of alcohol at the time, and incorporating the newly-discovered cocaine seemed almost too good to be true. The pope at the time was rumored to carry a flask.

In 1885, American John Pemberton created his own version of the coca wine, also containing kola nut, called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. Here’s a fun game: take the copy from any coca wine ad and change the product name to a modern energy drink. The pitches are nearly identical. “Vin Mariani: Makes the Weak Strong.” “Strengthens, sustains and refreshes.” “Imparts new life and energies.” Pemberton even went so far as to suggest his product was an “invigorator of the genital organs” and could cure a morphine addiction, a lateral move if there ever was one.

However, Pemberton ran into the major problem of prohibition, which was passed in his county in Georgia the same year French Wine Coca was introduced, making his product illegal because of its alcohol content, not the cocaine. The temperance movement in America had gained a lot of steam by the 1880s, but they were fighting their battle upwards. Not only did people enjoy alcohol, drinking was (and still is) woven into the social fabric. Giving up alcohol was one thing, but giving up the social and business interactions that happened in taverns and bars was several dozen more. In search of a sober-ish alternative, many teetotalers started encouraging the restorative and refreshing products of the soda fountain.

Many early soda fountains were actually druggist counters, the same places where coca wine had previously been sold. Sodas evoked the benefits many associated with bubbling mineral water (many New England soda fountains were called “spas,” and were opened explicitly as temperance businesses), so druggists and customers alike believed that adding medicines to soda water could only help their effectiveness. In the decades surrounding the temperance era, everything from caffeine to cocaine, opium to strychnine were added to these waters, along with herbs and flavored syrups to make them taste better, like if Breaking Bad were about Willy Wonka. In fact, when his county in Georgia enacted prohibition 34 years before the 19th Amendment, John Pemberton did just what the druggists did. He replaced the alcohol in his coca wine with sugar syrup, and turned it into Coca-Cola.

The drinks these druggists made actually tasted good and were advertised much the same way as coca wine, whether or not they actually had any medicinal properties. They were invigorating, refreshing, could settle your stomach and cure your “mental exhaustion.” You could choose from hundreds of flavors and styles, and watch the soda jerk work his magic like a mixologist. Drinking soda was also a wholesome alternative to an alcoholic lifestyle, and one that came with the same social benefits—now the soda fountain could be the town tavern. Another benefit is that the soda fountain became a safe place for single women to be seen, and a popular, respectable spot for young couples.

In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act put stricter regulations on opiates and cocaine. But two years later, Coca-Cola won the best-named federal suit of all time (United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola), in which the government attempted to force them to remove caffeine from their product. At the time, Harvey Washington Wiley, the first FDA commissioner, believed caffeine was a harmful and habit-forming drug, and opposed Coca-Cola because caffeine was an added ingredient, and because it was marketed to children. However, nobody could really prove that caffeine (especially the amount used in Coca-Cola) was bad for you, so it stayed.

Sodas remained popular throughout the early 20th century, moving from soda fountains to bottles and cans—handy, as the postwar economy revved up and more Americans bought refrigerators. But we’d gotten used to the caffeine in sodas. It was no longer a miracle pick-me-up, just another refreshing option for a drink if you couldn’t get a beer. The buzz was wearing off.

In 1949, soda makers started to test how far they could go. One of the first high-caffeine sodas was Dr. Enuf. Manufactured in Johnson City, Tennessee, they continue to advertise themselves as “the original energy booster.” The story goes that Chicago businessman Bill Swartz heard his coworkers complaining about the lack of vitamins and nutrients in many bottled sodas, so he developed a lemon-lime soda containing sugar, caffeine, and the B-vitamins thiamin and niacin, which help convert the body’s glucose, carbohydrates and fat into energy. (Dr. Enuf is still in business; its current formula contains over 61 mg of caffeine, and 220% of your daily recommended dose of thiamin.)

Initially, the advertising campaign centered around Dr. Enuf as a miracle tonic that fought aches and pains, lethargy, and even constipation. As they stated over and over, they were “not a soft drink”—they were more. They were also rivaled by fellow Tennesseans Mountain Dew, whose reconfigured 1960 recipe also contained more caffeine than your average soft drink.

Caffeine content in sodas began to creep up over the next few decades, with sodas like Jolt and Surge and many more with creepily aggressive names and slogans hitting the markets. Regular sodas began to pale in comparison: Coca-Cola classic has some of the lowest soda caffeine levels out there, around 34 mg per serving.

Technically, the 1960s were also the dawn of what many consider to be the first real “energy drink”: Lipovitan, a shot of liquid manufactured by Taisho Pharmaceutical in Japan. “For
over 40 years, Lipovitan® has been the best selling liquid vitamin energy drink in the world,” claims Taisho, and their formula resembles much of what we associate with energy drinks today. It’s not just caffeine and vitamin B—it contains taurine, ginseng and maltodextrin.

However, anyone who’s gotten through finals knows that the energy drink boom in America really began with Red Bull.

“While seeking a solution to his jet lag, businessman Dietrich Mateschitz discovered Krating Daeng, which would later become Red Bull,” according to Patrice Radden, Director, Corporate Communications for Red Bull North America. It contains 80 mg of caffeine per 8.4 fl. oz. can—significantly higher than any soda but still around the amount of a home-brewed coffee—as well as niacin and B vitamins aplenty.

It’s certainly strong, but not strong enough to give you a wildly different high from an Americano. That’s where the marketing comes into play. Red Bull gives you “wings,” whatever that means, and inspires guys to literally jump to Earth from outer space.

According to Red Bull, they sold total of 5.612 billion cans of their product worldwide in 2014, but at 80mg they’re quickly getting outpaced, or really just out-packaged. A can of Monster Energy drink or Rock Star has 160mg of caffeine in their 16 fl. oz. can, about the same as Red Bull, but at twice the size in a non-resealable container, you’re not going to be stopping at one serving. A 8.4 fl oz. can of Cocaine has 280mg of caffeine, and they warn you to limit yourself to one per day. And caffeine isn’t the only stimulant these drinks use. There’s guarana, a
plant that contains heavy concentrations of caffeine, and taurine, an amino acid naturally produced by the body. Guarana is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, but many have “insufficient data to establish safety” of use. But at least, according to this commercial, drinking it turns you into a bitchin’ vampire.

Often, that insufficient data is exactly what energy drink manufacturers rely on. In 2012, federal officials began looking into reports of several deaths possibly linked to 5-Hour Energy (which contains about 200mg of caffeine per shot, plus taurine, niacin, and a bunch of other additives). “Since 2009, 5-Hour Energy has been mentioned in some 90 filings with the F.D.A., including more than 30 that involved serious or life-threatening injuries like heart attacks, convulsions and, in one case, a spontaneous abortion,” according to the New York Times. And given that some energy drinks are regulated as beverages and others as “dietary supplements,” it’s hard to come up with sweeping regulations, especially since, taken individually and in small doses,
the ingredients aren’t actually dangerous. It’s only when combined in a high-dose shot and taken while trying to stay awake during a late-night retail job right out of college that they make you feel like your heart is going to explode. Or maybe that’s just me, feeling like I was living the true-life version of POWERTHIRST.

After over 100 years of attempting to DO ENERGY, we show no sign of stopping. Manufacturers are expanding their offerings; Red Bull now comes in multiple flavors and sugar-free alternatives, 5-Hour Energy comes in decaf, and you can order your organic smoothies with an “energy shot.” We even had our own cocaine wine—Four Loko, though they removed caffeine from their recipe in 2010 and last year Four Loko’s parent company, Phusion, was banned from making alcoholic energy drinks. “Phusion continues to believe, however, as do many people throughout the world, that the combination of alcohol and caffeine can be consumed safely and responsibly,” said Phusion President Jim Sloan.

Whether that combination is safe and responsible is up for debate, it is, historically speaking, incredibly popular. While certain drugs that give us energy may be taboo, the state of being energetic is not. I suspect that’s why the courts had such a hard time “proving” caffeine had
harmful effects back in 1916—the effects it gave are things we want in America. Drunks are lazy, potheads are forgetful, but a person on uppers gets shit done. That’s why for every Dream Water there are five energy drinks. Our states of motion are constantly being acted on by external forces, and energy drinks make us feel like we can fight that. We want to be awake and productive, and we’re ready to buy a “wonder drug” that make it so without any ill effects, whether we believe it to be caffeine, cocaine, or whatever they put in a 16 oz. can next.

Energy drink manufacturers, whether they’re chemists or druggists or corporations, have always been on the lookout for the next great stimulant. They will keep pushing what they can get away with—mixing caffeine and alcohol or finding new compounds to add—and governments will keep being outraged and trying to regulate them. But there’s no contesting our long history of legally stimulating ourselves. You’ll rip our Red Bull from our cold, dead hands.

Jaya Saxena is a writer who lives in Queens. She’s writing a couple of books right now, but you can also follower her stuff on Twitter @jayasax.

Illustration by Bobby Finger. Photos via; Dr. Enuf; Dr. Pepper Museum; courtesy Red Bull.

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