For most Americans, coffee and other drinks containing caffeine wake us up in the morning and perk us up when energy reserves run low. But consider gulping down the caffeine in 25 cups of coffee at one time. You’d no doubt feel jittery. And the frightening truth is, you could also end up dead.
It may sound crazy to take in that much, or more, caffeine at one time — and obviously nobody could down that quantity of coffee at one sitting — but people are ingesting huge amounts of the powdered form of the stimulant.
Marketed as a dietary supplement to increase energy and promote weight loss, powdered caffeine is especially popular with teens and young adults. For some, using this unregulated supplement has been a tragic decision.
Logan Stiner of LaGrange, Ohio, was excited about his upcoming graduation from Keystone High School. A volunteer with the Special Olympics and member of the National Honor Society, the healthy 18-year-old was set to attend the University of Toledo in the fall. However, his bright future ended unexpectedly when Logan miscalculated a dose of caffeine powder and mixed it into a pick-me-up drink. He was found lifeless in his family home on May 27, 2014. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death “cardiac arrhythmia and seizure, due to acute caffeine toxicity due to excessive caffeine ingestion.”
Within weeks, 24-year-old James Wade Sweatt, a recent college graduate living with his new bride in Georgia, blended a drink using water and powdered caffeine he’d purchased online. Interested in health and fitness, Sweatt reasoned it was a healthier way to get a lift than chugging a soft drink. Instead, his caffeine concoction quickly took his life.
Caffeine, a central nervous system stimulant, is found naturally in more than 60 plants, notably coffee, tea, and cocoa, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When used in amounts that aren’t excessive (for example, drinking a couple of cups of coffee per day), it is generally safe for most people.
The amount of caffeine in a cup of brewed coffee, depending upon size, ranges between 95 and 200 milligrams (mg). A 12-ounce can of most soft drinks contains about 35 to 40 mg of caffeine, while an energy drink like Red Bull has 80 mg of caffeine. But caffeine powder takes the potency to a far higher level.
Just a single teaspoon of caffeine powder, equal to more than two dozen cups of coffee, can cause symptoms like a rapid or erratic heartbeat. Accidentally stir a tablespoon (10 grams) of the stuff into a drink instead of a teaspoon and you’ve mixed up a lethal dose for an adult.
Man-made versions of caffeine are often added to energy drinks and some medications (in such products as NoDoz, Vivarin, and Excedrin) and by law have to be listed on the label. But caffeine powder is sold as a dietary supplement. And that allows it to escape regulation by the FDA.
Because it is widely available from online vendors, and in some health food stores, where it is sold alongside vitamins and protein powders, users may see caffeine powder as a “natural” and therefore supposedly safe way to increase energy and drop pounds — without realizing just how potent, and potentially dangerous, caffeine powder is even in relatively small amounts.
Katie and Dennis Stiner and Julie and James Sweatt, parents of the young men who died last year after consuming caffeine powder, have successfully pushed the FDA to review the dangers of the supplement. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, has petitioned the FDA to ban retail sales of caffeine powder.
“It’s the public misperception and familiarity with caffeine, which is something we think we know, that makes this product so dangerous in its current form,” CSPI attorney Laura MacCleery said.
In addition, several states are considering banning the sale of powdered caffeine. Ohio and Illinois have already approved such bills. And the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a dietary supplements trade group, has requested that its members not sell powdered caffeine to consumers. But for now, powdered caffeine can be purchased legally in most states and via the internet.
The FDA has issued a consumer warning, however, calling powdered caffeine a dangerous product that should be avoided.
With powdered caffeine still on the market, the Drug Free Action Alliance urges parents to talk to children and teens about the dangers of powdered caffeine and remind them that just because a substance is legal doesn't mean it is safe.
If you or anyone you know suspects they have overdosed on caffeine, the FDA advises seeking medical help immediately. Severe nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stupor, and disorientation are symptoms of caffeine toxicity. Symptoms of caffeine overdose include rapid or dangerously irregular heartbeats, seizures, and death.
September 01, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA