July 22, 2014 -- The story of an 18-year-old prom king, who according to reports died from an irregular heartbeat and seizures brought on by a caffeine overdose, has raised questions about caffeine -- particularly the powdered type used by the teen. Here’s what you need to know.
What is caffeine powder?
It's caffeine in powder form.
Caffeine is naturally in more than 60 plants, like coffee beans, tea leaves, and cacao, the FDA says. But man-made caffeine is also added to energy drinks and sold as powder or capsule supplements.
For about $10, you can buy 100,000 milligrams of caffeine powder online. That’s more than 1,000 Red Bulls’ worth of caffeine in one package. The powder can be used for inexpensive homemade caffeinated drinks and foods, as well as for pre-workout shakes. One online customer claims they made a caffeinated corn chowder.
Customer reviews on sales sites are quick to warn of how easy it is to mistakenly use too much of the powder. The serving size is 1/16 of a teaspoon, which requires mini-measuring spoons and a scale to measure. Simply mixing two regular spoonfuls of the powder into a drink is the same as drinking 70 Red Bulls at once, which could kill you. Some people use caffeine powder that comes in pre-measured capsules, each with 200 milligrams of caffeine.
“The public does not realize the caffeine content present in these products and the risk associated with ingestion of even small quantities,” says Chris Holstege, MD, director of toxicology and assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
Is caffeine powder regulated by the FDA?
The FDA regulates dietary supplements, such as caffeine powder, differently than "conventional" foods and drug products. The FDA ensures that claims on supplement labels are factual -- but dietary supplements don't need approval from the agency before they're marketed to the public.
Experts are calling for tougher regulation of supplements and larger warning labels on caffeine powder that highlight the deadly consequences of overdose.
How much caffeine is too much?
Experts agree that you should avoid having more than 600 milligrams of caffeine in one day. To put that in perspective, one grande Starbucks coffee (16 ounces) has about 330 milligrams of caffeine. A 12-ounce Diet Coke has 45 milligrams.
Because caffeine is a drug, though, its effects can vary from person to person depending on weight, medications, and overall health, Holstege says.
Can you overdose on caffeine?
Deaths caused by caffeine overdose are rare, but they do happen, says Steven Meredith, PhD.
Five-thousand milligrams to 10,000 milligrams of caffeine is considered the lethal amount. That looks like a large number, but 5,000 milligrams is just one small teaspoon of caffeine. A grande Starbucks coffee, by comparison, has less than 1/10 of a teaspoon.
Makers of caffeine powder “should do a better job of educating [their] customers by labeling their products appropriately with warnings" about the risks of using too much, Meredith says.
An overdose of caffeine can lead to heart problems and seizures that can be lethal. So, keep track of how much caffeine you have, and avoid giving children caffeine.