Last Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it was going to start restricting the sales of dietary supplements that contain high concentrations of caffeine, including pure caffeine products.
“These products present a significant public health threat because of the high risk that they will be erroneously used at excessive, potentially dangerous doses,” the FDA claimed in a safety communication issued on April 13. The statement also linked at least two deaths in otherwise healthy individuals to highly concentrated caffeine supplements.
The Problem of Caffeine Supplements
The new guidance from the FDA restricts the sale of bulk powder and highly concentrated liquid caffeine supplements directly to consumers. However, this is not the first time the regulatory agency has taken action against bulk packages of caffeine products.
In 2014, an 18-year-old high-school student in Cleveland, Ohio, was killed after overdosing on caffeine powder. According to statements from his family, the boy had been taking the caffeine powder as a pre-workout supplement, though it was not clear exactly what result he intended by taking it. Another young man died later that year in Georgia at the age of 24 after using pure powdered caffeine as a workout supplement.
The boy’s death led to multiple actions in 2015 and 2016, which included sending warning letters to seven caffeine supplement manufacturers indicating that their products “presented a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury to consumers.” However, the FDA declined at that time to put an outright ban on the products that led to the teenager’s death.
Using dangerously high amounts of caffeine as an exercise energy booster is one of the primary public health concerns behind the FDA’s restriction. “For example, teenagers, for a perceived energy kick, sometimes mix dangerously high amounts of super-concentrated caffeine into workout cocktails,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. “The amounts used can too easily become deceptively high because of the super-concentrated forms and bulk packaging in which the caffeine is being sold.”
Overdosing on caffeine occurs when a potentially toxic dose of the chemical is ingested in highly concentrated forms. A normal cup of coffee contains around 90 mg to 100 mg of caffeine, but a single teaspoon of powdered caffeine can contain as much as 2,000 mg to 3,2000 mg – 20x or more times the amount in a normal cup of coffee. These levels of caffeine are not only dangerous, but potentially deadly.
The warning label on some caffeine supplements indicate that a “safe” amount is only 200 mg of the product (about twice the amount in a normal cup of coffee), which is approximately 1/16th of a tablespoon. Unfortunately, most consumers are not equipped to measure such small amounts, which often leads to them adding more of the caffeine than they may realize, to potentially disastrous results.
Too much caffeine can cause serious side effects, the worst of which is an increase in heartbeat or irregular heartbeat (palpitations or arrhythmia). Lesser side effects include dizziness, sweating, anxiety, nausea, and insomnia, among other things.
Banning Bulk Caffeine Supplements
For now, the FDA is only banning powdered and liquid caffeine supplements that are sold in bulk quantities directly to consumers. Makers of products that contain caffeine as an ingredient will still have access to bulk caffeine powders and liquids for use in the manufacturing process.
Some states like Ohio, where the 18-year-old died from a caffeine overdose in 2014, have already banned the sale of concentrated bulk caffeine. Now, restrictions are in place across the entire country, effective as of April 13, 2018, when the FDA announced its ban.
Whether or not other high-caffeine products will be banned in the future remains to be seen. For now, the restrictions do not include prepackaged energy drinks or other energy products that contain caffeine as an ingredient. It also excludes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, and conventional foods and drinks that contain caffeine, such as coffee, tea, and soda.
However, given that the two individuals who died after taking concentrated caffeine products used them as an exercise supplement, it’s possible that workout cocktails containing caffeine could be banned in the future.
As for whether you should consume caffeine, it’s good to be aware of the effects it can have, even in safe serving amounts. If you feel jittery, anxious, experience frequent headaches, or have trouble sleeping, it might be worth cutting back. If those symptoms go on for long periods of time, seek professional medical advice.
And of course, you should always talk to your doctor before starting a new supplement.