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The Dangers of Caffeine Powder
By Lindsey Getz

Most young and older adults who want a jolt of energy in the morning or afternoon will drink a cup of hot coffee or tea. If that doesn't pep them up, they may have a second or third cup. But those who are looking for an even stronger boost to stay alert or enhance athletic performance have turned to caffeine powder, a concentrated supplement that recently has come under fire following the deaths of two people as a result of its use.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is pursuing an FDA ban on this supplement. "Before May 27, 2014, we had never heard of 'caffeine powder.' Now we think about it every day." Dennis and Katie Stiner made this statement as part of the petition to the FDA. Their son, Logan James Stiner, an 18-year-old from Ohio, died on May 27 last year as a result of using this product. 

In addition to Logan, Wade Sweatt, a 24-year-old from Alabama, also lost his life after ingesting caffeine powder. According to a story published on NPR.org, Sweatt was a health-conscious man who didn't like coffee and thought he was making a good choice by getting his caffeine boost from a supplement as opposed to sugary sodas.

Possibly Other Cases
While these two cases are known, there could be others, says Laura MacCleery, chief regulatory affairs attorney with CSPI and the author of the petition before the FDA. Because a death from caffeine powder manifests as a heart attack, an autopsy to search for substances might not be performed.

"If an individual took some caffeine powder before going to the gym and then had a heart attack while working out, that wouldn't necessarily lead anyone to look for caffeine in the bloodstream," MacCleery says. "That makes this even scarier. We don't really know how many deaths it may have caused."

So how much caffeine powder is a dangerous amount? It turns out, very little. One teaspoon of powdered caffeine is equivalent to 25 cups of coffee, MacCleery says. Two teaspoons is more than enough to kill someone. The suggested dose of caffeine powder is between 1/32 and 1/16 of a teaspoon.

"Without a microgram scale in one's home, you'd never be able to get the correct dosing," MacCleery says. "It's a ridiculous serving size, which makes the drug impractical for anyone to administer safely at home." Nor should anyone need to, MacCleery adds. There's no reason why anyone's diet should need to be supplemented with pure, pharmaceutical-grade caffeine. MacCleery calls it "irresponsible" that this drug could be sold legally. She believes the product is mostly available online through bulk supplement retailers and possibly in some specialty shops such as tobacco stores or directly from the gym.

What Dietitians Should Know
"What I'd like dietitians to know is that this product is out there and it's dangerous," MacCleery says. "Dietitians are the perfect audience for this message as some of the people who might be interested in using this product are health-conscious individuals who are struggling with energy and want to avoid caffeine through sugary drinks. But they need to know this powder is dangerous and should be avoided."

MacCleery fears that young adults may be experimenting with this powder. Many caffeinated products, including a wide range of energy drinks, are marketed to kids as being fun ways to boost energy. Even with good intentions—such as staying up late to study—if young adults turn to a product like caffeine powder they could put their lives at risk.

MacCleery says that even though a normal dose of caffeine through sports drinks, chocolate, or coffee typically is fine, she would still urge dietitians to talk to their clients about caffeine in general.

"People just need to be aware of how much caffeine they're consuming throughout the day," she says. "Sometimes it's hidden in products they don't even realize and they may be getting more than they think."

MacCleery adds that it's worth having a conversation about what kinds of effects caffeine can have. Studies have shown that short-term side effects of caffeine include headaches, nausea, and anxiety. "While not harmful in small doses, caffeine can still mess with your body, such as disturb your sleep schedule," MacCleery says, "and it's worth paying closer attention to how much you're consuming and what effects you might be feeling."

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.