Caffeine Powder: a deadly dietary supplement

Caffeine Powder: a deadly dietary supplement

Caffeine powder sounds innocent enough, right? After all, it's "natural" and we drink caffeine in coffee and sodas all the time. But taking pure caffeine powder is not like going to Starbucks. A 100-gram package contains as much caffeine as 400 "tall" cups of Starbucks coffee, or 1,250 Red Bull energy drinks, or 3,000 cans of Coke. A mere 10 grams, or about 2/3 of a tablespoon, is a lethal dose for an adult.

Last year, two young men died after overdosing on caffeine powder. One was an 18-year-old high school student trying to stay awake for class projects coming due. Another was a newlywed, recently graduated from college. Their deaths were a wake-up call to the FDA. 

Because caffeine powder is sold as a dietary supplement, the FDA has no pre-market regulatory oversight. It must play catch-up after the damage is done. In December, 2014, the FDA issued a Consumer Advisory on Pure Powered Caffeine, warning the public not to consume it. The FDA notes that it is almost impossible to measure powdered caffeine accurately with common kitchen measuring tools, making it easy to consume an overdose. They also warn of the effects:

Symptoms of caffeine overdose can include rapid or dangerously erratic heartbeat, seizures and death. Vomiting, diarrhea, stupor and disorientation are also symptoms of caffeine toxicity.


Even with the possibility of such dire consequences with ingestion of even small amounts, the FDA says warnings on the package may be insufficient. (No surprise there.) Consumers may not be aware that a small amount can cause an overdose. And the public's familiarity with caffeine can lead to a false sense that taking a bit of it in powdered form is safe. In fact, that is exactly what happened to James Wade Sweatt, the newlywed victim. He reasoned that pure caffeine was a healthier way to get an energy lift than the soda he had been drinking. 

Kate Stiner, mother of the high school student who died, can't understand why the FDA hasn't taken further action. We share Ms. Stiner's frustration, but ours lies mostly with Congress, which is largely responsible for this situation. Congress hog-tied the FDA by not giving it adequate authority to regulate dietary supplements and by making the false assumption that just because something is found in food, it is safe. Most caffeine powder is imported from Germany, China and India. The latter sources should raise concerns in and of themselves. 

Daniel Fabricant, who recently went through the revolving door between the FDA and industry, blew off criticisms of caffeine powder. Mr. Fabricant is now the executive director of the Natural Products Association, a dietary supplement industry trade group. 

It is the dosage that makes anything a poison," he said, paraphrasing a common saying among toxicologists. "Take water... [or] salt for example — if you use too much, it creates problems. I think that's really the issue here. People safely use caffeine every day.

But as Business Insider, which quoted Mr. Fabricant, points out, this argument is disingenuous. It is much easier to take a fatal dose of caffeine powder than it is of water or salt. Their reporters, in an article cleverly titled "We bought a bag of caffeine equivalent to 15,625 cans of Coca-Cola for $30," show just how hard it is to measure a safe dose. The average kitchen scale measures in grams, not milligrams. And with such a small recommended safe dose, why sell it in such large quantities? They bought a 500 gram bag over the internet. 

Some jurisdictions are taking action, or trying to. Suffolk County, NY, banned sales to minors. The Illinois and Ohio Senates approved bills banning retail sales and bills have been introduced in other states. But because most sales are over the internet, the effectiveness of this regulation is open to question. Six U.S. Senators asked the FDA to ban retail sales altogether but, so far, the FDA says only that it "will consider regulatory action."

In March, the Stiners filed a wrongful death suit against Amazon and other vendors and the friend who gave their son the powder. (Amazon no longer sells caffeine powder.)  Perhaps hitting sellers in the pocketbook is the only way to stop them from marketing and selling this worthless product. 



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