The manufacturer of Four Loko may have removed caffeine from the drink in advance of a Food and Drug Administration crackdown on caffeinated alcoholic beverages last fall, but a new report suggests that the canned cocktail may still have hyper-intoxicating effects -- regardless of the reformulation.
In an article for the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, Dr. Shepard Siegel of McMaster University in Canada said Four Loko -- and other similarly sweet alcoholic beverages -- may be particularly "effective intoxicants." The reason? They provide a novel flavor context for the alcohol.
Siegel claimed that flavor cues help the body prepare for the effects of alcohol on the system. But when that alcohol is masked by sweet flavors, drinkers' bodies cannot partake in what he dubs "anticipatory responding." That, in turn, leads them to experience the full response to the alcohol.
"You can have a similar experience where you might typically have a cocktail in the evening, but if you decide instead to drink the same amount in the afternoon, you could feel more intoxicated," he said in a phone interview Monday. "When you consume a drug in circumstances not previously associated with the drug, it can have a more profound effect."
The issue is particularly timely given Four Loko has just released a new flavor -- Blueberry Lemonade -- as part of its line of limited edition flavors. Siegel says that it could become more difficult for people to build up tolerances to the new flavors, which means the beverages could have what he calls "extraordinary intoxicating effects."
In the article, Siegel also acknowledged that Four Loko has an alcohol content of 12 percent, which could account for its intoxicating effects. "Based strictly on pharmacology," he wrote, "Four Loko should have about the same effect as a bottle of wine."
For its part, Phusion Projects, which manufactures the drink, dismissed the researcher's claims, saying that Four Loko is hardly the only drink of its kind and associating fruity flavors with alcohol is nothing new.
"There are many other malt beverages with flavors similar to our products on the market, as well as sweetened and fruit flavored vodkas and rums," a company spokesperson wrote in an email. "Like our peers in the industry, we introduce new flavors for the same reason clothing and car designers introduce new colors -- our consumers want and enjoy them."