Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2019
Most Americans consume caffeine regularly. High amounts of caffeine are found in a wide range of drinks including sodas, coffee, and energy drinks. Like most things, caffeine is safe for most people as long as it is consumed in moderation. The dosage size of powdered caffeine has come under scrutiny mostly due to its potency. The Food and Drug Administration has notified powdered caffeine distributors that their products are potentially dangerous to consumers as they have the possibility of causing serious adverse health consequences, including death. The FDA’s notices required powdered caffeine distributors to accurately label and market their products ensuring they are in compliance with the law. Four of the five distributors removed their products from the market following the notices, and the fifth distributor no longer markets to consumers.
What is powdered caffeine?
According to HuffPost, most Americans drink 2.1 cups of coffee per day and this amount tends to increase with age. The average adult can safely consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine daily. 400 milligrams of caffeine is roughly equivalent to about four cups of regular brewed coffee, ten cans of cola, or two energy drinks.
Powdered caffeine entered the market in 2013 primarily sold as a dietary supplement. At its conception, the drug was unregulated, although some products included voluntary warning labels, and was available through a variety of online retail stores. It wasn’t long before lawmakers and consumer groups began to advocate for better regulation of the drug.
Powdered caffeine is very potent as it is essentially 100% caffeine. In fact, a teaspoon of powdered caffeine was found to contain the same amount of caffeine as twenty-eight regular cups of coffee. A tablespoon of powdered caffeine is a lethal amount for adults. One manufacturer of the product recommended taking “1/32 of a teaspoon” as a safe amount of powdered caffeine. It is virtually impossible to measure this dosage size with regular kitchen tools, thus making accidental overdose a very real possibility.
Too much caffeine cannot only lead to death, but can also cause heart or cardiac issues, particularly an erratic heartbeat, and also seizures. Due to the potency level of powdered caffeine, small amounts have the ability to cause accidental overdoses. In fact, the deaths of two young men have already been linked to the overconsumption of the powerful stimulant. In light of these deaths, the FDA is specifically worried about young adults and teenagers who are known to use and abuse caffeine and may be drawn to powdered caffeine for its perceived health benefits, including improved mental concentration and weight loss.
What is being done to regulate powdered caffeine?
In July 2014, following the deaths of the two young men, the FDA advised consumers to avoid powdered caffeine products. That following summer, the FDA wrote warning letters to five distributors of powdered caffeine detailing the issue of dosage size and potency and stating that they were in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The FDA strives to ensure the products are correctly labeled but because of its purity, powdered caffeine can be very difficult to measure and create accurate dosages. The distributors were required to communicate steps they would be taken to rectify the labeling issues within fifteen days of receiving the FDA’s warnings. The distributors were asked to create a plan to ensure the products will be brought within compliance of law. Parents of the young men who died from overconsumption of the product, as well as other lawmakers and consumer groups urged the FDA to ban the product entirely.
Following the FDA’s issuing of warning letters, four of the distributors took their products off the market completely. The final distributor no longer markets to consumers. In March of 2016 the FDA sent out another letter to a company that was falsely marketing powdered caffeine as a fat-burner.
Although most of the distributors have taken their products off the market and no longer market directly to consumers, the FDA is still concerned about its sale and the families of the teenagers who overdosed still urge the products to be categorically banned. This type of ban will allow the FDA to seize powdered caffeine and allow and manufacturers and/or distributors of the drug to be penalized.