A couple of years ago, coffee drinkers were buoyed by the release of a massive study in the New England Journal of Medicine that “did not support a positive association between coffee drinking and mortality.” In fact, the analysis by Neal D. Freedman and associates showed that even at the level of 6 or more cups per day, coffee consumption appeared to be mildly protective against diabetes, stroke, and death due to inflammatory diseases. Men who drank that much coffee had a 10% lower risk of death, and women in this category show a 15% lower death risk. Coffee, it seemed, was good for you.
Hooray for coffee—but lost in the general joy over the findings was the constant association of coffee with unhealthy behaviors like smoking, heavy alcohol, use, and consumption of red meat. And the happy coffee findings did not consider the consumption of caffeine in other forms, such as energy drinks, stay-awake pills, various foodstuffs, and even shampoos.
One of the earliest battles over “energy drinks” was an action taken in 1911 under the new Pure Food and Drug Act—the seizure by government agents of 40 kegs and 20 barrels of Coca-Cola syrup in Chattanooga. Led by chemist Harvey Wiley, the first administrator of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), agents of the fledgling organization acted on the belief that the soft drink contained enough caffeine to pose a significant public health hazard. The court case went on forever. Eventually Coca-Cola cut back on caffeine content, and the charges were dropped.
Jump cut to 2012, and watch the FDA grapple with the same question a hundred years later, citing concerns about undocumented caffeine levels in so-called energy drinks in the wake of an alleged link between the caffeinated soft drinks and the death of several young people. According to Dr. Kent Sepkowitz, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, while only 6% of young American men consume the drinks, “in a recent survey of U.S. overseas troops, 45% reported daily use.” In 2006, more than 500 new energy drinks hit the market. By 2011, sales of energy drinks in the U.S. climbed by more than 15% to almost $9 billion.
Death by caffeine has long been a subject of morbid interest, and an article in the Journal of Caffeine Research by Jack E. James of Iceland’s Reykjavik University questions these prevailing assumptions, and brings together the latest research on this perennial question, including, yes, a consideration of whether the time has come to regulate caffeine as some sort of controlled substance.
In 2013, the FDA released reports that attributed a total of 18 deaths to energy drinks. Somewhere between 3 and 10 grams of caffeine will kill you, especially if you are young, old, or suffer from various health problems. The generally accepted lethal dose is 10 g. The wide gap in estimates and mortality reports reflects the wide variation in caffeine’s effects. Half the lethal dose can kill a child, and some adults have survived 10 times that amount. As I wrote in an earlier post (“Energy Drinks: What’s the Big Deal?”): “Energy drinks are safe—if you don’t guzzle several of them in a row or substitute them for dinner, or have diabetes, or an ulcer, or happen to be pregnant, or are suffering from hearth disease or hypertension. And if you do OD on high caffeine intake, it will not be pleasant: Severe cardiac arrhythmias, palpitations, panic, mania, muscle spasms, and seizures.”
Warning signs include racing heart, abdominal pain, vomiting, and agitation. Since the average cup of coffee weighs in at about 100 milligrams, there doesn’t seem to be much to worry about in that regard. Nonetheless, the American National Poison Data System (NPDS) has more than 6,000 “case mentions” related to caffeine. One of these cases generated considerable press coverage: the death of a 14 year-old girl with an inherited connective tissue disorder.
In his article for the Journal of Caffeine Research, James starts by noting other fatalities, including two confirmed caffeine-related deaths in New Mexico, and four in Sweden, among other long-standing historical reports. Still, not much there to wring your hands over—but James insists that data on poisonings “do not show what contributory role caffeine may have had in cases where fatal and near-fatal outcomes were deemed to have been due to other compounds also present.”
Fair enough. But here is where the argument gets interesting. “Considerably smaller amounts of caffeine,” writes James, "may be fatal under a variety of atypical though not necessarily rare circumstances.” Among these, he singles out: 1) Prior medical conditions predisposing patients toward unusual caffeine metabolism. 2) Unknown interactions and synergies with prescription, over-the-counter, and illegal drugs. 3) Physical stress and high-intensity sports. 4) Children, for whom caffeine is easily available.
James claims we don’t know enough to insist caffeine is essentially harmless, let along good for us in large doses. He compiled this eye-opening list of foods and other products that sometimes contain caffeine: ice cream, chewing gum, yogurt, breakfast cereal, cookies, flavored milk, beef jerky, cold and flu medications, weight-loss compounds, breath-freshener sprays and mints, skin lotion, lip balm, soap, shampoo, and, most notably, as a contaminant in illegal drugs. James says that the largest category of incidents with over-caffeinated young people involve “miscellaneous stimulants and street drugs…”
As for energy drinks themselves: “As a nonselective adenosine receptor antagonist, caffeine counteracts the somnogenic effects of acute alcohol intoxication, and alcohol may in turn ameliorate the anxiogenic effects of caffeine.” It’s an age-old practice: caffeine doesn’t sober up drunks, but it does keep them awake. James believes the evidence shows that the combination of caffeine and alcohol increases the risks of unprotected sex, sexual assault, drunk driving, violence, and emergency room visits.
Furthermore, “the ubiquity of caffeine is such that it has become a biologically significant contaminant of freshwater and marine systems….”
Finally, James offers a vision of a caffeine-regulated future, noting that Denmark, France, and Norway have already introduced sales restrictions on energy drinks. Restrictions on the sale of powdered caffeine may follow, as a valid public health measure. “Canada requires labeling in relation to the same product, advising that it should not be mixed with alcohol.” Other countries have labeled energy drinks as “high caffeine content” beverages. And Sweden regulates the number of caffeine tablets that can be purchased at one time from a drugstore. Meanwhile, in the U.S., makers of energy drinks, unlike makers of soft drinks, do not even have to print the amount of caffeine on the label as dietary information, although this is in the process of changing. Major energy drink makers are moving to put caffeine content labels on their products, in part to shift their relationship with the FDA. Last year, The Food and Drug Administration advised consumers to avoid powdered caffeine due to health risks.
Originally published March 13, 2013