Caffeine can be found in a lot of products: coffee (of course), tea, pre-workouts, energy drinks, and soda, to name a few. Odds are though, you’ve never come in contact with pure caffeine powder—or at least you shouldn’t need to unless you manufacture one of the aforementioned products.
You’ve probably read about caffeine powder in recent news reports of a young Australian man whose 2018 death was attributed to caffeine toxicity. Lachlan Foote added the powder to a protein shake—the exact amount is unknown—and later died. News of his death has raised concerns about the safety of caffeine powder, and Lachlan’s father is calling for it to be banned in Australia.
Pure caffeine powder, or caffeine anhydrous, is a dehydrated form of caffeine naturally found in coffee plants. Through the dehydration process, the caffeine becomes very potent, and even toxic in small doses; just one teaspoon of it has as much caffeine as 28 cups of coffee, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Torey Armul, M.S., R.D., a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, explained that it’s often used to improve athletic performance, reduce fatigue and improve mental clarity. But the risks, she continued, far outweigh the benefits. “I wouldn’t recommend pure caffeine powder to anyone,” she told M&F. “We know that caffeine in small amounts, like a cup of coffee, is healthy and has benefits for athletes. But the problem with pure caffeine powder is the unregulated dosage.”
A recommended serving of caffeine powder ranges from 1/32 to 1/16 of a teaspoon. The problem, however, is that caffeine powder is often sold in large quantities—sometimes in gallon-sized bags. Separating the recommended serving from such a large amount is almost impossible because common household measuring spoons don’t go that low and most companies don’t sell scoops with the powder.
So it becomes a guessing game on the part of the user, one that Armul said is not worth the risk. “Trying to eyeball it or estimate it by yourself in your kitchen can lead to fatal consequences,” she said. If someone guesses wrong and adds too much caffeine they can easily suffer caffeine toxicity, the symptoms of which includes rapid or dangerously erratic heartbeat, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea, haziness, disorientation, and, most notably, death.
Because it’s so hard to separate the right serving size from the container, the FDA made large quantities of caffeine powder illegal due to their high risk of causing death. In April 2018, the agency released a guidance letter to companies that manufacture, market, or distribute caffeine powder, in which it warned that it could seize the product or ban the company from manufacturing or marketing it.
Now, most websites only sell caffeine powder to laboratories or businesses and not to the general public. A quick Google search, though, found plenty of sites that still sell it to anyone with a credit card, and it’s easily purchasable on eBay.
The benefits of caffeine are widely known in the bodybuilding world. Not only does it give you more energy, it can improve muscle contraction, help with bowel regularity, and has been shown to burn fat.
Armul suggested that anyone looking for a pre-workout jolt stick to coffee, tea, or energy products (such as bars or drinks). “That gives your body a chance to metabolize the caffeine in a way that can also indicate if you’ve had too much,” she said. “Capsules and powders don’t give your body that chance to regulate itself.”
How much caffeine should you have per day? Recommended doses seem to vary, but the general consensus is approximately 400 mg per day, or about four cups of coffee or two standard energy drinks.
Armul said it depends on the person and what they’re looking to get out of caffeine. “If you’re not a coffee drinker and still able to dig deep in workouts, there’s no need to deliberately add caffeine to your diet,” she says. If you want to experiment with caffeine to see if it boosts your energy or concentration, opt for the sports gels, beans, bar or tablets during your workout.”
In the end, she warns that caffeine will not supercharge anyone’s workout. “It will not make up for poor nutrition, dehydration, or subpar training, so make sure you focus long and hard on those things first,” she said.