FoodFacts.com has posted often on our blog about the potential dangers of energy drinks. The information is certainly out there. Between 2007 and 2011, emergency room visits attributed to the consumption of energy drinks doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 in just four years. And most of those visits involved teenagers and young adults. But it isn’t just energy drinks that contain questionable amounts of caffeine. It was pretty recently that a major manufacturer halted the development of caffeinated chewing gum. And let’s not forget about caffeine pills that aren’t marketed to kids.
Christian Brenner was trending on the internet today. He’s an adult who claims he absolutely had caffeine poisoning. He swallowed five Magnum 357 caffeine pills and then drove down an Ohio freeway. Just minutes later he said he started to vibrate – and so did the cars in his rear view mirror. He was smart and pulled over to walk around and try to calm things down.
We hear so many conflicting reports on caffeine. So what’s the deal? Is caffeine safe? How much is too much? Should we be avoiding it completely?
Experts say that, in fact, you can overdose on caffeine … especially if you aren’t paying attention to how much you’re consuming.
“Safe doses of caffeine are usually quoted at around 200 to 300 milligrams, or two to four cups of coffee per day,” says Dr. David Seres, associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University.
We’re sure that we’ve all seen people consume more coffee than that in a single day. Especially these days, when a typical 8 ounce cup is considered small, it’s much easier than it used to be to ingest more caffeine than what’s quoted as safe.
But what about the studies that have linked caffeine to actual health benefits? Some research has associated caffeine with protection from Parkinson’s disease; others have noted that it may reduce risk for some types of cancer.
We can take advantage of those potential benefits, while keeping our consumption to the moderate levels advised by experts. Christian Brenner may have been unaware that those five caffeine pills he took contained 200 mg of caffeine each. That’s 1,000 mg. at one time. And that is just too much.
Energy drinks also pose the question “How much is too much?” A regular size can of Red Bull will usually contain about 80 mg. of caffeine. But there are 16 ounce cans of some brands out there. The larger can of Monster can contain up to 240 mg. That’s a bit less than a 16 ou. cup of coffee, which contains about 300 mg. There’s really a big difference here though. It would be unusual for a coffee drinker to down back to back 16 ounce coffees, while it’s become fairly common (especially for younger people) to consume two or three larger-sized energy drinks before a workout or a practice or a game thinking that the drinks are going to help their performance.
Barbara Crouch, executive director at the Utah Poison Control Center, comments, “When you pound down more than one energy drink verses sipping a cup of coffee, you’re not metabolizing it the same way.” She notes that adding factors like size, age, sex, drug interactions, hydration levels and the amount of food in the stomach can mean different outcomes for different people when on a caffeine binge.
“Yes, there is absolutely such a thing as caffeine poisoning, and the dose essentially makes the poison,” she says.
But Crouch has a bigger bone to pick with the makers of energy drinks: She says that many of them aren’t being fully forthcoming about ingredients. “Natural” additives — such as guarana, taurine and so-called “Siberian ginseng” — haven’t been fully tested. These additives may contain additional caffeine and some of the herbs can have stimulatory effects. They’ve never been tested for safety of interactions with prescription drugs and other substances.
But James Coughlin, a food, nutritional, chemical and toxicology safety expert in Los Angeles who consults for the American Beverage Association (the industry group that represents energy drink companies), disputes that.
“The caffeine contained in the guarana of an energy drink is only around one milligram, versus the 80 milligrams of synthetic caffeine added by a beverage company such as Red Bull,” he says. “The lethal dose of caffeine is 10 to 20 grams of pure powder caffeine, so if you were going to try and kill yourself with caffeine, you’d probably drown in the liquid first if you did it with coffee — and even more so with an energy drink.”
There is a very real debate occurring around energy drinks and the overall safety of caffeinated products. But regardless of that debate, the increase in energy drink-related ER visits is very real and can’t be ignored.
And while we’re all happy that the FDA is taking a new look at energy drinks, caffeinated foods and how and to whom these products are marketed, FoodFacts.com agrees with the concept that not everyone is always aware of how much caffeine they really may be consuming.
Barbara Crouch cautions that people should monitor caffeine intake from all sources. “So you have that cup of coffee, but lo and behold you decide to get an extra-dark bar of chocolate,” she says. “Or you drink a soda. Or maybe you do take an allergy pill or a dietary supplement.” Sometimes people miss the fine print on labels about stimulant properties in all these products. We should be paying attention to our consumption of caffeine the way we pay attention to our consumption of other ingredients in our food supply.