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Skeletons in the Corporate Closet: Red Bull


The label on the can makes no mention of heart disease, high blood pressure, or death.

Red Bull gives you wings. Harp and halo sold separately.

For the nearly two decades since entering the US market, Red Bull has been running from controversy like a bovine through a Pamplona street. The energy drink has been implicated in a number of serious, even fatal, swigging and swooning incidents all across the globe.

In 1999, 18-year-old Irish basketball player Ross Cooney died of sudden adult death syndrome after a game, when just hours before he'd shared four cans of Red Bull. Two years later, Tim Lloyd, 33, suffered a fatal heart attack after drinking a pitcher of Red Bull and vodka in Hong Kong. Matthew Penbross, a 28-year-old Australian motocross competitor, experienced heart failure at a 2007 event during which he consumed eight cans of Red Bull over a five-hour period. In April 2008, Alfredo Duran, 40, died of cardiac arrest at the end of his night shift in a supermarket in England after drinking up to four cans of Red Bull each night. Five months later, Red Bull may have contributed to the death of 21-year-old Chloe Leach, who collapsed at a dance club in England after imbibing at least four cans of the energy drink along with a vodka drink that also contained caffeine. While the student had an existing heart condition and epilepsy, a neuropathologist said the high levels of caffeine found in her system exacerbated the cardiac arrhythmia that killed her.

Most recently, Brooke Robertson, a 23-year-old Australian new mother, conducted her own Red Bull Super Size Me experiment in order to shed her baby weight and lived on a daily diet of 10 to 14 Red Bulls and a handful of dry cereal for eight months. While she did lose 100 pounds, she also gained a heart attack and ongoing health problems.

All of these dangerous and deadly accounts that include mention of Red Bull beg the question: Do these claims have any scientific proof or is this all just a load of bollocks? Several recent studies testing the effects of Red Bull on cardiovascular functioning have concluded a "Mess with the bull and you'll get the horns" outcome.

A 2008 Australian study found that Red Bull can increase your risk of heart attack or stroke. Just one can of sugar-free Red Bull caused the blood of healthy subjects to become sticky and temporarily raised their cardiovascular risk to levels seen in individuals with cardiovascular disease.

at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit determined in 2009 that healthy adults who drank two cans a day of energy drinks including Red Bull, Full Throttle (KO), Amp (PEP), and Rush experienced a 10-point increase in blood pressure and a five to seven beat increase in heart rate. Postural tachycardia syndrome (an increase in heart rate of more than 30 bpm within 10 minutes of sitting or standing up) studied in a 16-year-old female volleyball player was found to be induced by Red Bull overuse.

But Red Bull disagrees with such assertions. The company tells Minyanville, "There are no risks associated with the consumption of Red Bull. Red Bull has been on the market for more than 22 years and is now sold in more than 150 countries. In 2009, almost 4 billion cans of Red Bull Energy Drink were sold worldwide. Red Bull could only have such global sales because health authorities across the world have concluded that Red Bull is safe to consume."

So what's inside that skinny eight-ounce red, blue, and silver can? The primary ingredients are sugar, the amino acid taurine, glucuronolactone, and B vitamins. And while the effects of consuming these additives is not fully known, the caffeine (equivalent to one cup of brewed coffee) seems to be the culprit behind troubling reports, especially when consumed in excess. In fact, it's the caffeine in Red Bull that has authors of a Johns Hopkins study urging its regulation.

In 2008, Red Bull courted trouble again when it unveiled a new cola product, pitching, "We simply believe that a cola can also be made from natural ingredients. Just like back in the old days...Thanks to its special recipe, the cola from Red Bull is not just a cola, but a cola of a special kind: strong and natural." When German officials learned one of the ingredients in the cola's special recipe was trace amounts of cocaine, the drink was qualified as a narcotic and banned in several German states.

To be fair, Red Bull's claim of paying homage to the good "old days" of cola is an honest one. How else could Coke have gotten its first customers so hooked?

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