The Washington Post carried a story yesterday on a new FDA warning about powdered caffeine’s potential for a lethal overdose. Caffeine is relatively unregulated as a dietary supplement and companies have been selling it mixed into “energy” drinks and “shots”, inhalers and other forms, including pure powder, through Amazon.com and other internet venues.
Most of the stupids (I mean, more politely, naive consumers) who buy caffeine-laced “energy” products are teenage boys and young men–no great surprise. Guys in that age range tend to have trouble getting up in the morning and being alert for class. The proliferation of the iPad, the smart phone, and game apps isn’t helping. A cheap, legal and potent stimulant seems like just the thing to counteract the effect of late nights and early exams. Combine that with a pitch about “energy” and fitness–mostly in the form of weightlifting and bodybuilding, a sector rife with dietary supplement abuse marketing, and wishful thinking about instant “buffness”, as my now-teenage daughter scoffs–and you’ve got a really bad deal.
But it doesn’t take much of the purified caffeine powder to overdose and the difference between stimulated and dead can be as little as a few milligrams–much too hard to measure accurately with a teaspoon or even most kitchen scales.
Caffeine is far from harmless even in limited doses (otherwise, why would we bother to drink coffee?) And it’s definitely a drug–I had to work with it in the lab way back in my radioactive youth. And it’s really inexpensive.
Why the “dietary supplement” label is still allowed to cloak quasi-drug and drug products from FDA control is a mystery to me. It’s a bad deal for everyone eventually, because as more of the supplement compounds are discovered to have harmful effects–think anabolic steroids or some of the “smart” drinks and relaxants added to “energy” drinks over the past decade–Congress ends up having to legislate against them one by one, and the FDA has to go through a torturous combination of warning letters and negotiations with the companies involved and attempt to draw up new regulations–a very expensive and drawn-out process. And it’s usually piecemeal and illogical–caffeine levels in soda are regulated, pure powdered caffeine is not.
In the meantime, hospitalizations from caffeinated energy drinks and other easily abused products have doubled since 2007, and there have been a number of deaths from caffeine overdose, including the Indiana teenager whose parents had no idea he was buying and consuming powdered caffeine when he died at the end of May, and whose case spurred the FDA’s attention this time. The state of Oregon is also currently going after 5-Hour Energy in a lawsuit over false advertising claims about ingredients that actually do nothing much, when the real stimulant effect is due to a dose of caffeine.
But even if you’re not a naive teenage boy, the whole caffeine-laden environment has expanded beyond anything that makes sense. More and more people are finding themselves overdosed (not lethally, usually) but with the shakes or dizziness. Between the Starbucks venti and proliferation of 20-ounce sodas as the new normal serving size, there’s a new source of trouble, because caffeine is showing up in foods we don’t expect to contain it.
Food companies are adding caffeine to candy and snacks these days as never before–even in oatmeal and pancake syrup. The FDA is taking the “negotiate with the companies and hope they back down” approach, as they did with Wrigley for its Alert caffeinated chewing gum a year ago. They don’t currently have the impetus to forbid adding caffeine to foods as they did with alcoholic caffeinated beverages a couple of years ago–the “blackout in a can” as Charles Schumer put it–but they’re at least making noises about getting it back out of foods that children and teenagers are likely to eat. I like the coffee cup graphic up on their Q&A page about it, but will it really change anyone’s mind or make them look harder at the ingredient lists if they’re already buying these products?
Why put caffeine powder in non-coffee foods in the first place? It doesn’t taste like much or stimulate the tastebuds, exactly. But the combination of mental stimulation via caffeine with eating a particular snack food is probably intended to make lackluster processed foods more attractive and even addictive in either the literal or marketing sense. Given the price of caffeine powder compared with almost anything else the companies could add, I’d be willing to lay odds on who’s going to be even more addicted to caffeine than the consumers. Cue the Pavlov effect.