Potent Powdered Caffeine Raises Safety Worries

Dec 31, 2014
Originally published on January 2, 2015 7:32 am

Wade Sweatt thought he had found a healthier way to get himself going in the morning. Instead of getting his daily jolt of caffeine from a cup of coffee or a Coke, Sweatt decided last summer to try mixing some powdered caffeine he'd bought via the Internet with some water or milk.

"Wade was very health-conscious, a very healthy person," says Sweatt's father, James. "His idea was, this was healthier than getting all the sugar and the sodium and ... artificial sweeteners from drinking Coca-Colas and diet Cokes."

But the first time Wade tried the powder in June, something went terribly wrong, his father says. The 24-year-old apparently used too much.

"Within just a few minutes his heart began beating out of control," James Sweatt says. "And eventually — within just a few minutes — his heart stopped."

The ambulance workers who responded, and the doctors at the hospital, were able to get Wade's heart going again, his father says. But it kept stopping. Eventually, the young man fell into a coma and died.

"It certainly has been devastating for us," the father says.

James Sweatt and his wife, who live in Gardendale, Ala., have teamed up with Katie and Dennis Stiner, who live in LaGrange, Ohio. Their 18-year-old son Logan died in May after using caffeine powder in the hopes of improving his workout. They want the Food and Drug Administration to ban powdered caffeine.

"One teaspoon is the same amount of caffeine as in 25 cups of coffee," James Sweatt says. "And once this caffeine hits your bloodstream — and it does so very quickly — there's just nothing, really, anybody can do. And that's what makes this product so dangerous."

It's unclear how common it is for people to overdose on caffeine powder. But these parents are not alone in their concern. Some poison experts, at least two senators (Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.) and others are also calling for a ban.

"It doesn't need to be sold in this form," says Laura MacCleery, an attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer rights advocacy group. "It shouldn't be legal under the law," she says. "It's the most dangerous dietary supplement that's on the market today."

The companies that sell powdered caffeine acknowledge that their products can cause health problems if people use too much, and say the deaths that have been reported are tragedies. But Daniel Fabricant, executive director of the Natural Products Association, says the problem is not with the product, but with people misusing it.

"It is the dosage that makes anything a poison," Fabricant says. "Take water for example, [or] salt for example — if you use too much, it creates problems. I think that's really the issue here. People safely use caffeine every day."

But the FDA has issued a public alert, warning consumers about the danger of powdered caffeine. The agency also has started calling companies that sell these products, urging them to voluntarily take powdered caffeine off the market, says Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.

"It's fundamentally irresponsible to be selling this powerful drug in this form to consumers," Taylor says. He calls pure powdered, bulk caffeine "a dangerous, potent drug that, if taken in as little as a teaspoon, runs the risk of being a lethal overdose to people."

The FDA, Taylor adds, has started building a case to force companies to stop selling powdered caffeine if they continue to disregard the warnings.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We look next at powdered caffeine. That is a very concentrated form of caffeine that's being marketed on the Internet for all sorts of things - to boost workouts, help people lose weight, stay awake. Sounds like a nice idea at this hour in the morning, but NPR's Rob Stein reports that critics say powdered caffeine is unsafe and should be banned.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Wade Sweatt was 24. He liked to take care of himself and thought he had found a healthier way to get going in the morning - mixing some powdered caffeine he'd bought on the Internet with some water or milk. Here's his dad, Jim.

JIM SWEATT: Wade's idea was that he was going to use caffeine powder to get a little caffeine, you know, in the mornings. His idea was this was healthier than getting all that sugar and the sodium and so forth, the artificial sweeteners and so forth from drinking Coca-Colas and Diet Cokes.

STEIN: But the first time Sweatt tried this in June, something went terribly wrong. He apparently took too much.

SWEATT: And within just a few minutes, his heart began beating out of control, and eventually within just a few minutes, his heart stopped.

STEIN: An ambulance rushed Sweatt to the hospital where doctors struggled for more than a week to save him.

SWEATT: That 11 days that we spent there at the hospital was - yeah - there's no way to describe how awful that was.

STEIN: Doctors couldn't get the caffeine out of his system, and Sweatt's heart kept going haywire over and over again. He finally fell into a coma and died.

SWEATT: I don't think I'll ever be the same. It certainly has been devastating for us.

STEIN: It's unclear how many people may be overdosing on caffeine powder like this. But stories like Wade Sweatt's have prompted calls to ban it. Laura MacCleery is a lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group.

LAURA MACCLEERY: It doesn't need to be sold in this form, it shouldn't be legal under the law and it's the most dangerous dietary supplement that's on the market today.

STEIN: The companies that sell powdered caffeine acknowledge that it can cause health problems if people use too much and say the deaths that have been reported are tragedies. But Daniel Fabricant of the Natural Products Association says the problem is not the product; it's people misusing it.

DANIEL FABRICANT: It is the dosage that makes anything a poison - take water, for example, salt, for example. If you use too much, it creates problems. I think that's really the issue here. People safely use caffeine every day.

STEIN: But Jim Sweatt, who watched his son die of an overdose, says powdered caffeine isn't like water or salt. It's potent, and it's just too easy to overdose.

SWEATT: One teaspoon is the same amount of caffeine as in 25 cups of coffee. And once this caffeine hits your blood stream - and it does so very quickly - there's just nothing really anybody can do, and that's what makes this product so dangerous.

STEIN: Sweatt and his wife, who live in Alabama, have teamed up with some parents from Ohio to try to get the Food and Drug Administration to ban powdered caffeine. That couple's 18-year-old son died in May after using caffeine powder in the hopes of improving his workout. The FDA has issued an alert warning consumers about the danger of powdered caffeine. And Michael Taylor, a deputy commissioner at the FDA, says the agency has been asking companies selling these products to take them off the market.

MICHAEL TAYLOR: It's fundamentally irresponsible to be selling this powerful drug in this form to consumers.

STEIN: So, Taylor says, the FDA has started building a case to force companies to stop selling powdered caffeine if they continue to disregard the warnings. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.