We Americans love our energy-boosting drinks, never mind that so many have been shown to pose threats of heart disease, high blood pressure and other problems for some people. The newest form of caffeine-infusion is a powder that the FDA has determined is potentially harmful enough to issue a warning.
The feds sent the letter alert to five producers of pure powdered caffeine, which packs more of a punch than people should absorb. As reported by the New York Times, a teaspoon of caffeine powder equals about 28 cups of coffee; a tablespoon can be lethal. One 100-gram package (about 3.5 ounces) can supply as much caffeine as 400 “tall” cups of Starbucks coffee, 1,250 cans of Red Bull or 3,000 cans of Coke.
“Last year,” according to The Times, “two otherwise healthy young men died after using too much, prompting the agency to warn of the potential dangers.”
Consumer safety advocates have been waiting for the warning longer than they would have liked. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) had petitioned the FDA to prohibit the sale of pure caffeine, but welcomed the warning in the hope that it’s a first step toward eliminating the product altogether.
CSPI’s Laura MacCleery said, “People assume something this dangerous would not be sold to consumers in this form. They are used to seeing warning labels and childproof caps on aspirin. And this is just a zip-lock bag.”
The powder often is mixed into other beverages, a practice the FDA deemed “potentially dangerous,” and one that presented a “significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury.”
Because powdered caffeine is so strong, “safe” amounts are tiny, and most people’s kitchen measuring spoons aren’t precise enough to ensure that safety — variations in how densely the powder is packed can result in huge potency differences of which people are unaware. According to the FDA website, “The difference between a safe amount and a toxic dose of caffeine in these pure powdered products is very small.”
Potential harms, as enumerated on the website, include rapid or dangerously erratic heartbeat, seizures and death. Vomiting, diarrhea, stupor and disorientation are also symptoms of caffeine toxicity.
Consumer safety advocates are concerned about energy products in general, contending that consumers don’t understand their risks. The watchdogs want the FDA to regulate them more forcefully. Comparing caffeinated drinks with pure caffeine, MacCleery said in a statement, “is like comparing a table knife and a table saw.”
One of the companies that got the FDA letter was Bridge City Bulk. Its 10-kilogram package of caffeine powder contains about 1,230 tablespoons, equivalent to 50,000 servings. The feds told the company to “take prompt action to correct the violations.”
In an email to The Times, Bridge City’s founder said the company had “immediately stopped selling the material” and had received “no product complaints at any time, ever.”
The other companies warned by the FDA were Hard Eight Nutrition, Kreativ Health (Natural Food Supplements), PureBulk and SmartPowders. If you consume any of their caffeine powders, stop. You simply can’t know the extent of possible harm. We also suggest you avoid most energy drinks, as their contents often are a mystery and you don’t want to consume anything with druglike properties.