How many drinks are in a can of Four Loko? Here's why college students get it wrong

"The company not only ignored their request but has since released several new flavors."

four loko

The reformulated, caffeine-free Four Loko may not provide the same buzz that once inspired descriptions like “pure evil,” or “fucking insane on every level.” But five years after the 2014 reformulation, researchers are still concerned about it. People still appear to have no idea what they’re in for when the pop open a can, and that ignorance may be traced back to a detail on the label.

Even without the caffeine addition that made the old formulation of Four Loko dangerous, the alcohol content, which ranges from 8 percent to 14 percent like their newly debuted hard seltzer or is enough to contend with. Research published in The American Journal of Public Health Research found that in Florida, more than 60.7 percent of 300 students underestimated the amount of alcoholic drinks in a Four Loko by one or more drinks. In Virginia, 71.1 percent of 197 students got it wrong by one or more drinks, and in Montana, 44.6 percent of 336 students were off-base.

In this study, lead author Matthew Rossheim, Ph.D., of George Mason University, has shown that students “grossly underestimate” how much alcohol is actually in a can of Four Loko. His earlier work also suggests the same.

Four Loko Alcohol Facts

The 14 percent ABV Four Loko cans are the equivalent of 5.5 drinks, these authors say. But the can still reads “4 3/4” servings.

“Consuming a single one of these products over the course of two-hours can put youth and young adults well over the legal per se driving limit of 0.08 g/dL; consuming two cans puts them at risk of alcohol poisoning,” Rossheim says.

Why is it so hard to tell how many drinks are is in a Four Loko? This team says it comes down to the way it’s labeled.

Inverse has reached out to Four Loko for their comment on this paper. We’ll update this story with their response.

four loko
More than 60 percent of undergrads sampled from Florida and Virginia underestimated how many drinks were in one can of Four Loko.

How many drinks are in one can of Four Loko?

The typical supersized can of Four Loko is 23.5 ounces, which is described as 4.75 servings of the drink on the label. But depending on the State you’re in and the flavor of Four Loko you’re drinking the can may actually have a different percentages of alcohol by volume (ABV). Ultimately that changes how many alcoholic drinks are actually compressed into that same 23.5 ounce space.

Depending on the state, Four Lokos are either 8 percent ABV (like in Montana), 12 percent ABV (in Virginia or Florida), and some newer formulations have as much as 14 percent ABV. On all cans it says there are 4.75 servings, but per can, you actually are consuming between 3 and 5.5 drinks depending on the ABV content.

The reason that 4.75 stays the same is because Four Loko, instead, makes the alcohol per serving size larger, so there are still technically 4.75 servings, they’re just more alcoholic. The alcohol per serving size for a 12 percent ABV can of Four Loko is .6 fluid ounces. For the 14 percent can, it’s .7 fluid ounces.

At the end of the day, that works out to more drinks consumed, even though it’s the same sized can.

Four Loko cans are large

Here’s the conversion the authors used in this study.

  • Watermelon Four Loko: 8 percent ABV = 3.13 12-ounceBudweisers
  • Watermelon Four Loko: 12 percent ABV = is 4.70 12-ounce Budweisers
  • “New flavors” like the Bold Series: 14 percent ABV = 5.50 oz 12-ounce Budweisers

In some states, like Montana, 8 percent ABV cans are the standard, and there, students were better at guessing how much was in each can. Rossheim adds that students in Florida, students were 1.7 times more likely to to underestimate how many drinks were in a Four Loko can compared to students in Montana. In Virginia, they were twice as likely to underestimate.

“So it appears that students are better at estimating and understanding the alcohol content when Four Loko has a lower (8%) alcohol by volume,” says Rossheim.

“Ignored” requests

Just because these undergraduates underestimated the amount of alcohol in a can of Four Loko, that doesn’t mean that everyone does. Four Loko, though, has faced some blowback about their labeling before.

In 2011, the Federal Trade Comission demanded that Four Loko’s parent company Phusion Projects, LLC, change the labelling, and argued that 11 and 12 percent ABV Four Lokos were marketed as single serving beverages, but actually contained as much alcohol as four to five beers. Phusion Projects complied with the changes, though Jaisen Freeman, co-founder, Phusion Projects, LLC told Consumerist that the company stood by the clarity of the packaging.

Rossheim would like to see Four Lokos limited to 8 percent ABV for a 23.5 ounce can. He’s not the only one. In 2015, 17 state attorneys who actually wrote to Phusion Projects, LLC demanding the reduction in alcohol content to 8 percent ABV, which they called the “industry standard.”

“The company not only ignored their request but has since released several new flavors with even higher abv (14%),” says Rossheim. “In the absence of voluntary compliance, it is urgently important that legal or regulatory actions be taken to reduce the alcohol by volume of supersized alcopops.”

Again, Inverse has reached out to Phusion Projects, for their comment.

As it stands, it’s actually far more confusing that it seems to figure how how many drinks are in a classic Four Loko than it seems. If Rossheim’s results hold up, it’s hard enough for undergrads when they’re sober, let alone in the midst of a frat party disaster.

Abstract:

Background: Four Loko, the leading supersized alcopop brand, is a pre-mixed alcoholic beverage containing up to 5.5 standard alcoholic drinks in a can. In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) mandated the addition to Four Loko cans of a label indicating its alcohol content in standard drinks, presented as “alcohol per serving” and “servings per container.”

Objective: The current study investigated whether college students accurately estimate the alcohol content in cans of Four Loko bearing the FTC mandated labels.

Method: Undergraduate student drinkers (n = 833; 51.6% women) in three states (Florida, Montana, and Virginia) were provided an empty Watermelon Four Loko can and asked to determine the number of standard drinks it contained, using 12-ounce regular beer (Budweiser) equivalents. In Florida and Virginia, Watermelon Four Loko contains 4.70 standard alcoholic drinks; in Montana, it contains 3.13.

Results: More than 60% of Florida students and more than 70% of Virginia students underestimated Four Loko’s alcohol content by one or more standard drinks, compared to 45% of Montana students. Multivariable logistic regression analysis found the following variables were associated with greater odds of underestimating Four Loko’s alcohol content by one or more standard alcoholic drinks: being female (AOR = 2.2), having never seen nor heard of Four Loko (AOR = 1.9), and residing in Florida (AOR = 1.7) or Virginia (AOR = 2.8) versus Montana.

Conclusions: Students were far less likely to underestimate alcohol content for 8% alcohol-by-volume (abv) cans compared to those with higher alcohol concentrations. Thus, policies restricting supersized alcopops’ abv may help consumers better estimate their alcohol content.

Media via Elaine Thompson/ APShutterstock, Paul Sakuma/AP/Shutterstock, Inverse