This is an out-and-out hoax that crosses my path from time to time, and currently getting a new lease of life on Facebook: it may have originated in some sort of misunderstanding, but if so, it has been overlaid by so many layers of misinformation and deception that it reads to a practised eye as sheer fiction.
The chain message claims that the Red Bull energy drink contains a synthetic stimulant banned in some parts of the world (the version I’m looking at mentions France and Denmark) which is alleged to be associated with a range of conditions from migraine to brain tumours and cerebral haemorrhage to liver damage. Some versions of the hoax claim that glucuronolactone was developed by the US Department of Defense to raise morale among troops in Vietnam.
In fact, glucuronolactone is a naturally occurring component of connective tissue that metabolizes innocuously in the human body and both it and taurine (also an ingredient of Red Bull) are commonly found in food. Glucuronolactone is often found in energy drinks in relatively high concentrations, but I’ve been unable to find any verifiable evidence of confirmed risk. The assertion that the drink has just been banned in France and Norway are probably associated with the fact that the drink was at one time under investigation in France and some parts of Scandinavia due to concerns about its caffeine and/or taurine content.
There is, of course, always a possibility when a particular brand is the target of a hoax impugning its reputation that it originates with a competitor. There is, however, no evidence (as far as I know) that this is the case here.
The drink is claimed in some versions of the hoax to be associated with migraine, and that the combination of Red Bull and alcohol has a direct and improbably severe (and irreversible) effect on the liver. Someone I know actually claims that Red Bull – with or without vodka – helps her recover faster from a migraine attack. I’m not aware that there’s any proven medical basis for that assertion, but it’s a good excuse for splicing the mainbrace, I suppose. ;-) However, I should probably play the responsible killjoy and point out that apart from the other potential negative impacts of alcohol consumption, it's not usually a good idea to drink alcohol at the same time as you're taking painkillers (or medication in general).
The second example published by Snopes here is pretty much the same as the version I'm seeing circulating on Facebook. And no, this post is in no way an endorsement of the energy drinks industry.
David Harley CITP FBCS CISSP
ESET Senior Research Fellow
Author David Harley, We Live Security