Is Caffeine Safe?
Caffeine is a potent botanical stimulant that humans have been using to enhance physical and mental capacities for tens of thousands of years. Millions of people – somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million Americans -- use caffeine every day to wake up, stay alert, alleviate fatigue, and remain productive throughout the day. Still others use caffeine to improve concentration and focus, to enhance athletic performance, and even as a dietary aid. But is caffeine consumption safe?
What Do the Authorities Say?
According to the FDA and respected health authorities such as the Mayo Clinic, taking up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day is generally regarded to be safe for most healthy adults, but should be avoided completely by anyone with a caffeine sensitivity, health problem, women who are pregnant or nursing, or anyone under 18 years of age. [It’s important to note that these recommendations pose a challenge for most people because it’s difficult for the average consumer to assess just how much caffeine she or he is getting from coffee, food products, and even most caffeine supplements, and caffeine’s effects, both positive and negative, are dose-dependent (see ‘How Much Caffeine are you Taking?’ below).]
Potential Negative Effects at Higher Doses or in Sensitive Individuals
High doses of caffeine can result in any of a number of side effects even for those healthy adults for whom the FDA generally regards caffeine to be safe. Some individuals who use low-to-moderate doses of caffeine without noticeable side effects will experience jitteriness, restlessness, anxiety, and/or tremors at higher doses or during particularly stressful periods of their lives. Regular caffeine use can lead to dependency and some individuals report feeling lethargic, headachy, and depressed when they stop taking this stimulant. Additionally, caffeine is a diuretic and can cause increased urination and dehydration when not taken with sufficient liquid. And in very high doses caffeine can lead to rapid and/or erratic heart rate, arrhythmia, cardiac arrest, and even death. Again, caffeine should not be taken by anyone with a caffeine sensitivity, health problems, women who are pregnant or nursing, or anyone under 18 years of age.
How Much Caffeine are You Taking?
The Coffee Dose Conundrum
Because all of caffeine’s effects on the brain and body are dose-dependent, the issue of determining how much caffeine one is taking into their system each day is important – and surprisingly difficult. Consider the amount of caffeine that might be present in one’s morning cup of coffee. In a 2003 study conducted by researchers at the University of South Florida, the number of milligrams of caffeine present in 16 oz cup of the same blend of coffee served at the same Starbucks location over a six-day period varied more than 126% -- that means that a person placing the same coffee order each day could be taking in more than twice as much caffeine from one day to the next, and a presumed 200 mg serving of caffeine – half of a safe daily amount – could actually contain 552 mg of caffeine – 152 mg or 38% more than the safe daily limit.
Caffeine Pill and Supplement Label Concerns
Caffeine pills, capsules, shots, and drinks aren’t necessarily more reliable options than coffee when it comes to ensuring a well-measured serving of the stimulant. Despite an FDA mandate requiring that energy products label the amount of caffeine in a serving, some do not. Some products contain caffeine amounts that are at significant (up to 20%) variance with the amounts noted on their label. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of the New England Journal of Medicine, Pieter Cohen, M.D. and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School assessed the content of caffeine-based energy products that were available for purchase on various U.S. military bases. They found that only 9 out of 20 these caffeine-based products had accurate dose labels. So while these products may give the consumer a sense of security around the accuracy of their serving of caffeine, it’s likely to be a false one.
Bulk Pure Caffeine Powder Dangers
The most potentially dangerous caffeine option is bulk powdered pure caffeine because it’s difficult to measure an accurate serving of the powder and, therefore, easy to inadvertently take too much of it. High doses of caffeine can result in extreme anxiety, cardiac arrhythmias, cardiac arrest, and, in some cases, death (there have been 2 known fatalities in the U.S. as result of accidental overdoses of bulk pure powdered caffeine). Accordingly, the FDA has issued a public safety warning urging consumers to avoid pure powdered bulk caffeine, and there is increasing public and political pressure to ban the sale of this product. Given the inherent dangers of taking bulk pure caffeine powder, the question becomes, ‘Why would anyone risk it?’
The Lure of Pure
The central nervous stimulant properties of caffeine make bulk pure powdered caffeine ripe for abuse by adolescents and other individuals who are seeking a cheap stimulant ‘high’. But ‘recreational abuse’ alone doesn’t adequately account for the market for bulk pure caffeine. While not negating the dangers inherent in taking pure powdered caffeine nor the fact that consumers should avoid its use, bulk pure caffeine does offer one advantage over most of the readily available caffeine product options: It is pure. And purity matters to a significant sector of the caffeine-consuming public, particularly athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and weight-conscious consumers.
Of the two young men who have died in the U.S. from an accidental overdose of pure powdered bulk caffeine, one apparently used the product explicitly because of its purity. In an interview given subsequent to the accidental pure powdered caffeine overdose suffered by his son Logan, James Sweatt, said that Logan was a 'health nut' and he used it because he thought it was “healthier than getting all the sugar and sodium and artificial sweeteners from drinking Coca-Colas and diet Cokes.” Many people who take caffeine do so to boost their athletic performance or their metabolism. These consumers are more likely to be drawn to products that don’t contain sugar, artificial sweeteners, dyes, or additives. This rules out as an option most of the caffeine-based energy products, which offer the apparent advantage of dose-accuracy but contain added unhealthful impurities designed to make the products easier to manufacture, or to look or taste better.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock