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Fact check: Energy drinks don't contain illicit drugs but may spur false positive test

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/6/2020 Melissa Badamo and Miriam Fauzia, USA TODAY
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The claim: Red Bull causes a false positive result on drug tests

A 2019 Facebook post shows a picture of a urine drug test and claims that the energy drink Red Bull tests positive for the stimulant methamphetamine and opioids oxycodone and Suboxone, while the energy drink Bang tests positive for recreational drug ecstasy. The post alludes to the instance of a false positive, which occurs when a test shows the presence of a substance that a person has not actually used.

There are several anecdotal reports of Red Bull producing a false positive result on drug tests, including the story of a musician in Switzerland who tested positive for amphetamine in 2017, allegedly due to excessive consumption of the energy drink.

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"Red Bull products are NSF Certified for Sport, meaning our products are tested for 270 athletic banned substances from the WADA, NFL and MLB prohibited substances list," said Erin Mand, Red Bull's director of corporate communications, in an email.

USA TODAY has also reached out to Bang for comment on the Facebook post. 

While Red Bull does not contain any of the substances that drug tests screen for, the nature of certain urine drug tests is why a false positive result may occur.

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How drug tests work

Drug testing gained national attention during President Richard Nixon's campaign against drugs in the late 1960s, inspiring creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration's precursor, the Office for Drug Abuse and Law Enforcement. Drug policy would continue to take shape under subsequent administrations, leading to the drug laws and efforts at criminal justice reform that exist today.      

Drug tests can vary widely depending on the drugs being tested and specimen types collected, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Facebook post pictures a urine drug test, a tool commonly used to monitor medication compliance, detect drug abuse or for employment screening purposes. Aside from urine, other biological samples such as hair, saliva or sweat may also be collected. Urine drug tests, however, are considered the gold standard given ease in collection, low testing cost and ability to detect recent drug use.     

Despite the pros, the underlying methodology of the urine drug test — which uses immune system molecules called antibodies (also known as an immunoassay) — can be why a test returns a false positive for energy drinks, said Dr. Peter Chai, an emergency medicine physician specializing in toxicology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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“A lot of these energy drinks have some sort of caffeine in it, and then they have essential amino acids,” he said. “You’re not testing for the actual drug, you’re testing for a structure within the molecular composition of the drug. That’s how these tests commonly get fooled. There’s not amphetamine in the energy drink, but one of these amino acids may mimic the structure and so (the test) is just going to become positive if it detects a similar structure.”

Chai said that because there are a lot of potential things that can go wrong with an immunoassay that would lead to a positive result, laboratories could then conduct a follow-up confirmatory test to determine the identity of the actual drug. 

There may be another culprit behind the false positive. There have been reports of riboflavin being mistaken for marijuana according to an article in Missouri Medicine, the journal of the Missouri State Medical Association. Riboflavin is a form of vitamin B naturally present in some foods and exists as an additive in Red Bull, which contains 1.47 mg per serving.

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The post depicts an invalid test

While Red Bull may cause a false positive, the post shows the results of pure Red Bull poured into the container, rather than a urine sample of someone who has consumed the energy drink.

“Pure Red Bull is going to have a different pH and a different acidity than actual urine,” Chai said. “When you drink it, your body metabolizes and breaks down its compounds, and then when you urinate, you have a different compound. You’re looking at fundamentally different things. So, I don’t think that’s a valid test.”

Our ruling: Partly false

We rate this claim PARTLY FALSE, based on our research. It is true there is a possibility that the urine of a person who consumed Red Bull or another energy drink can falsely test positive on an immunoassay drug test if the amino acids found in the drink mimic the structure of a certain drug. However, the post is misleading because it shows test results of the energy drink poured into the container rather than a urine sample of a person who has consumed and metabolized the drink. Therefore, the results are not valid.

Our fact-check sources:

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Energy drinks don't contain illicit drugs but may spur false positive test


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