- Lachlan Foote died after drinking a protein shake with a powdered caffeine supplement added. A coroner’s report confirmed his death was due to a caffeine overdose.
- Too much caffeine is bad for your heart and lungs and can even be fatal. There have been at least 40 deaths reported from caffeine supplements in the past 50 years, and the real number is likely much higher.
- Caffeine can be found in high doses in a variety of supplements like pre-workout products and weight-loss aids, and it can be hard to measure a safe dose.
- Despite the risks and FDA warnings, pure caffeine continues to be cheaply and widely available, and many companies continue to sell it in bulk with vague or misleading serving sizes.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.
Last week, a coroner’s report showed that Lachlan Foote, a 21-year-old in Australia who died after drinking a protein shake, had overdosed on caffeine from a supplement powder.
He’s not the first.
Ohio high school wrestler Logan Stiner died in 2014 after mixing a scoop of caffeine into his workout shake, according to The Chronicle-Telegram.
And, in Connecticut, 19-year-old James Stone died after taking nearly two dozen caffeine pills in 2007, VICE reported.
In all, a 2018 study in Nutrients magazine identified 91 deaths attributed to caffeine in the past 50 years worldwide, and just over half of them were confirmed to be from caffeine pills or powders.
Highly-concentrated caffeine supplements, like the one that killed Foote, are dangerous because they stress the cardiovascular system suddenly and intensely, which can lead to unconsciousness and even death. They’re also cheap and easily available online or in stores without a prescription. Often, they’re combined with other drugs and poorly labeled. And, bulk containers of these products, combined with deceptive dosage information, can make it easy to take too much.
Concentrated caffeine can be found in weight-loss supplements and pre-workout powders, in addition to energy products
Products that advertise “thermogenic” performance-boosting or weight-loss effects often contain caffeine to help boost the metabolism, speed the breakdown of fat in the body, and make you feel more energetic.
The increasingly popular keto diet has also inspired an array of keto-friendly energy and weight loss pills, also with high amounts of caffeine.
Many brands of preworkout supplements, such as powders, shakes, or bars also include caffeine with the aim of helping athletes power through vigorous exercise.
And, of course, any product with “energy” in the name is likely to contain at least some caffeine, as are products promising to prevent sleepiness or improve focus.
Concentrated caffeine is more dangerous than coffee, tea, or soda because in traditional forms, it’s generally diluted, so you’d have to drink a lot of liquid in a short amount of time to reach a dangerous amount. And, because caffeine in large amounts will irritate your stomach, the body will naturally try to get rid of it before it can cause a serious problem.
Think of the difference between concentrated caffeine and coffee like the difference between hard liquor and beer: It’s a lot harder to reach a deadly level of alcohol consumption in a short amount of time if you’re sipping beers than if you’re throwing back shots.
Despite safety guidelines, companies are finding ways around regulation
In 2018, the FDA cracked down on supplement sellers by clarifying that highly-concentrated caffeine is illegal to sell in bulk directly to consumers.
Companies responded by finding ways around that rule.
A search for “caffeine” on the website of one of the FDA-cited companies led to a page for “special customers only,” with an unspecified product available in orders of up to 5.5 pounds. The smallest size, 3.5 ounces, is advertised for $ 16.99. It contains 340 servings — roughly as much as 480 cups of coffee or 10 times a lethal dose.
Other company notes on its website that it no longer offers bulk caffeine powder to consumers, but you can order 20 kilograms or more of caffeine powder “for manufacturing purposes.”
Vague or deceptive labeling can make it different to measure a safe amount of caffeine supplements
Concentrated caffeine is sold cheaply and in large amounts. It can be sold under a cryptic names as part of an “energy blend” or simply as pure caffeine.
Containers often come with a scoop or dose cup that can hold several times the recommended amount, which users can easily mistake for the proper dose if they don’t read the label carefully.
One company selling liquid caffeine, for example, advertises serving sizes based on a pump dispenser method that looks like a bottle of hand soap. But the ads don’t mention that the pump doesn’t come with the product — instead, the container includes a measuring cup that holds 2.5 times the actual recommended dose.
In other cases, the recommended dose is so small it can be difficult to measure. For some companies, the proper “serving size” of pure caffeine powder is 1/16 or even 1/32 of a teaspoon. Most people don’t have measuring spoons that small, and would need a precise digital scale to measure a safe dose.
Because it’s so concentrated, the difference between a safe dose and a dangerous one can be small, the FDA warns; even adding a heaped spoonful of powder instead of a level one can cross that line.