Herbal coffee holds a special place in Malaysians' hearts. These tiny packet of instant coffee, non-dairy creamer, and assorted herbs or roots are cheap as hell (RM 5, or about $1.26 USD) and available everywhere from grocery stores to neighborhood mamak restaurants. All you need to do is add hot water and all that "natural goodness," is all yours.
Now, what exactly that "natural goodness," cures is up for debate. But in a crowded marketplace full of energy boosters and coffees promoting fantastical health benefits, one of them rises above the rest as the most-notorious herbal coffee out there—kopi jantan.
Kopi jantan is literally "male coffee," and its cheeky name says it all. And depending on which brand you buy, kopi jantan can be way more than just a caffeine fix. One brand, the popular Kopi Jantan Tradisional, is advertised online as a drink that can help you fight fatigue, reduce nerve pain, grow brain cells, boost your metabolism, slow the ravages of age... the list goes on and on.
But it's the claim that it can “increase sexual abilities” using “100% traditional herbs” that's the real draw. Kopi Jantan Tradisional is basically a steaming hot cup of Viagra. It promises to return the "internal energy," needed to make you a "pure man," imbued with the power of a jungle root native to Indonesia and Malaysia called tongkat ali.
This is the real reason behind kopi jantan's success—it promises to be a cheap and quick fix to men's bedroom problems. It's part of a barely regulated industry worth millions that positions itself as a natural alternative to erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra and Cialis. Except it isn't.
“These are not medicines,” Dr. Ismail Tamby, an andrologist, told VICE. “It’s only stated as herbs or supplements. Can you imagine coffee is being marketed as being able to produce strong and hard erections? The thing is, what kind of coffee are they talking about? Is it just caffeine or is it something else?”
It's usually something else. While some studies have shown that herbs like tongkat ali can boost a man's testosterone levels and increase their sperm count, it's only in really high dosages, levels that are unlikely to be in a packet of kopi jantan. It just doesn't make economic sense to source that much tongkat ali and then sell it at such a low price.
Instead, brands like Kopi Jantan Tradisional, Kopi Tenaga Tok Lebai Plus, and Kopi Panggung Al-Ambiak contain something far less all-natural: unknown amounts of sildenafil—the drug sold under the brand name Viagra worldwide. But none of these brands list sildenafil on their ingredients list, and none of them are legally allowed to sell coffee spiked with erectile dysfunction pharmaceuticals.
“These beverages contain illegal materials like Viagra or Cialis which need to be registered,” Ismail told VICE. “They are scheduled poisons, as far as the Ministry of Health is concerned. It can only be prescribed through a doctor.”
A similar product called New of Kopi Jantan Tradisional Natural Herbs Coffee was pulled from the shelves in the United States last year after the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) found traces of ingredients that weren't declared on the back of the package—including desmethyl carbodenafil, a chemical compound structurally similar to sildenafil.
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Here in Malaysia, the Ministry of Health has banned similar versions of kopi jantan alongside other dangerous products like mercury-contaminated whitening creams, according to a list of banned products released by the ministry.
But this has done little to stop sundry shops and mamak joints from carrying at least one brand of kopi jantan on their shelves. One repeat user, a man who only wanted to be known as Ezra, told me that he gets his kopi jantan from a sundry shop in his neighborhood. He likes to combine a cup of Kopi Panggung Al-Ambiak, his favorite brand, with crystal meth for drug-fueled sex marathons.
“I’m already horny as fuck on meth, the coffee just helps me get a hard-on,” the 37-year-old writer told VICE.
Al-Ambiak is even strong enough to combat the impotency caused by continued use of drugs like crystal meth, he told VICE. And it's far easier to get than actual Viagra. The manufacturer prints its address, email, and phone number right there on the package and with one call you can get a block delivered straight to your home.
There's also a large online resell market. Two vendors interviewed by VICE told our reporter that Al-Ambiak is really "effective," and really popular. The minimum order is a box of 20 packets for about RM 100 ($25.82 USD).
It's unknown exactly how big the kopi jantan industry is, but in 2016 the value of sex stimulants seized by authorities in Malaysia totaled RM 43 million ($11.13 million USD), according to a government spokesperson. And that's just the kopi jantan taken off the market. The rest of the industry is likely several times larger than RM 43 million.
How could these illegal drugs masquerade as herbal supplements in a country where certain drug offenses carry the death penalty? According to Koris Atan, the president of the Consumer Association of Penang, it all comes down to a serious lack of enforcement by the government. Authorities are allowed to confiscate products that contain dangerous substances, contain adulterated materials, and are falsely labeled under Malaysia's Food Act 1983.
But despite this, the continued open sale of contraband coffee shows just how lax, and possibly corrupt, official enforcement is in Malaysia.
“Enforcement is zero,” Koris told VICE. The enforcement division under the Ministry of Health, which has purview over food products, is very small and Koris estimates there is only one officer in charge of 10 different food products.
VICE reached out to both the Ministry of Health and the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia for comment, but neither office replied to our requests.
“Malaysians are vulnerable and easily convinced to buy," Koris told VICE. "People must be aware and careful."
The risk of heart attacks aren’t the only thing afflicting unsuspecting Malaysian men. Relying on these coffees also means they’re missing out on an opportunity to really address the core issue at hand, according to Ismail.
The prevalence of these sex stimulants in the local market is a shame, Ismail told VICE, as it prevents Malaysian men from going to the doctors to find out and to treat the real cause of their bedroom troubles.