During my university years, I used to measure out small amounts of caffeine powder on a milligram scale, put it in a gel cap, pop, and repeat throughout the day. A two-inch tall mountain of the dusty substance sat Scarface-like on a piece of paper atop my then-boyfriend’s desk next to the scale and alongside a baggie of caps.
I was dosing on average 30 or so milligrams a piece, three to four times daily, whenever I began to feel sleepy. Periodically, the caps would open before I swallowed and my mouth would be filled with the harsh, bitter taste of powdered caffeine.
When I moved back home after graduating, I quit cold turkey without giving it any thought (unlike its liquid equivalent, there is virtually no routine in terms of powdered caffeine consumption; it is to coffee what Soylent is to food.) I didn’t even realise I had been hooked until I came down with the cold sweats, migraines and body convulsions a few days after being caffeine-free, as I went through withdrawal from my 120-ish mg daily caffeine habit.
I was able to find a $10 bottle of 100 200 mg capsules (so, roughly five cents a pill) in the supplement section at a local chemist, and my body was immediately appeased. From then on, I stuck to pre-capped caffeine over the powdered stuff, for no reason but ease (though there are safety reasons to make this switch too — more on those later). In powder more than liquid form, caffeine is powerful stuff: here’s what to know before you dose, for coffee haters and lovers alike.
The Basics of Caffeine Safety
Caffeine is the most commonly used psychoactive legal drug in the world. More than 50% of adults consume 300 mg or more of caffeine a day, making it our most popular drug by a significant margin. Your average cup of coffee probably has around 100 mg of caffeine; a 560ml venti Starbucks Blonde Roast has 475 mg; a can of Diet Coke has 76 mg; a shot of 5-hour Energy has 200 mg, all according to this chart from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
There are an infamous number of contradictory health studies proclaiming various pros and cons of caffeine: it causes cancer, it cures cancer, it shortens your lifespan, it’ll make you live longer, etc. One thing health professionals are generally in agreement about, though, is that moderate caffeine consumption is not a health risk. In the shorter term, it’s important to be aware that there is such a thing as ingesting a dangerous and even fatal amount of caffeine.
From liquid caffeine alone, it is hard to OD – you’d need to drink tens of cups of coffee one after the other. When severe caffeine overdoses do happen (and they are quite rare, especially for such a universal drug) they are obvious: vomiting, abdominal pain and seizures are all symptoms, according to Vox.
Always call emergency services for seizures or other serious symptoms. For a mild overdose, when your symptoms are just the jitters, you’re probably fine to stay calm, drink some water, and wait it out. For anything in between, or if you’re not sure, call Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 or use their online tool.
Here’s some basic caffeine safety info:
A healthy adult is recommended to take no more than 400 mg a day of caffeine.
An average cup of coffee usually has about 100 mg or less caffeine.
10,000 - 14,000 mg of caffeine is considered to be a lethal dose for a full-grown, healthy human.
Today, my plastic container of caffeine pills sits in the corner of my medicine cabinet. It is labelled “Dietary Supplement” in small print and decorated with a blue metallic stripe and the molecular structure of trimethylxanthine, the chemical compound which composes pure caffeine.
The container initially contained 50,000 mg of caffeine — enough to constitute a fatal dose for at least three people, based on the FDA’s lethal caffeine estimate. I generally limit my own consumption to one 200 mg pill every morning — well under 400 mg a day (the equivalent of four or so cups of coffee), the maximum recommended amount for a healthy adult. While bottles of 100 mg caffeine pills are available, it’s rare to see smaller doses.
Stick to Pills, not the Powder
Adulterated and poorly labelled bulk powder products should be avoided as they may pose serious health risks. One favourite fact thrown around in headlines is that a “teaspoon” of pure caffeine powder can be fatal. This is true.
In 2014, 18-year-old Logan Stiner and 24-year-old James Wade Sweatt died in the US due to excessive caffeine ingestion. Pure caffeine products were subsequently banned. “It should be as illegal as heroin,” the mother of Stiner told NBC of caffeine powder in an interview following his death.
The problem is that most people are unfamiliar with proper caffeine dosage. The difference between a deadly amount of powder and the amount of ground coffee in an average cup does not visibly look that different. A properly calibrated scale is necessary for any level of precision.
Today, powdered caffeine not pre-packaged into individually dosed pills and tablets has been virtually illegalized, relegated to eBay and other second hand retailers in terms of online purchasability. Bottom line: powdered caffeine is increasingly difficult to come by, and requires extra tools and precision to consume in safe doses, so for both convenience and safety’s sake, you’re much better off sticking to taking it in pill form.
You’ll be saving money—and the environment
The reason I prefer pills to coffee is simple, if sacrilegious: I don’t like the taste of coffee. Also, I enjoy the hyperawareness verging on mania which comes from taking a full dose at once. This is obviously not for everyone, and when I have taken too much caffeine, and breached the 400 mg recommendation, I’ve become predictably franticand fidgety, had heart palpitations, experienced clammy palms and heightened anxiety.
Being addicted to caffeine pills and disliking coffee is also quite unintentionally antisocial. In liquid form, the drug constitutes one of humanity’s most unifying routine experiences. The way I take it, I’m usually dry swallowing a small white pill in silence.
There are some bonuses to caffeine pills, though, for those who prefer them, including price and environmental impact. My caffeine addiction costs under $US50 annually, while the average worker spent over $1000 on coffee in 2012, according to one report at the time.
Additionally, while I recycle two or three plastic bottles a year, there is much waste involved in the coffee industry, with disposable cups and single-use coffee pods frequently slammed and banned for being un-recyclable.
Another plus: caffeine pills have no calories (although the label on my bottle does list gelatin, rice and flour as additional ingredients) and don’t present an opportunity to serve as a vessel for cream, sugar and other sugary sweeteners. And by all accounts, caffeine pills are better for you and less dangerous than energy drinks, which often combine large doses of caffeine with lots of sugar and are sometimes ill-advisedly mixed with alcohol.
If we as a society learned anything from original recipe Four Loko, it is that humanity blindly trusts widely distributed branded cans, even when they contain more or less literal poison. The safety of combining caffeine and taurine, an ingredient which energy drinks often contain in large doses, is still in question. The consumption of energy drinks by minors is not: it’s bad, and yet there are no age restrictions when it comes to purchasing energy drinks, only 'recommendations'.
There’s no evidence that quitting is a much different experience for consumers of caffeine in its liquid versus its pill form, although the sterilized experience of popping your daily cup of joe means there isn’t much routine and no sugar to miss. Tolerance build-up, too, is more or less the same: the chemical of caffeine is no more addictive as a powder than it is as a drink – to achieve the same effect, you’ll always need more and more, no matter the form you’re ingesting caffeine in.
Looking to switch? Firstly, know that everyone will think you are a monster. The social stigma is easily the most difficult part. Finding the pills is easy: most chain stores with a pharmacy section carry them, as do some local chemists, and they are of course available online, which is unfortunately the best place to buy if you are picky about which brand you prefer.
As with most things in life, if you buy in bulk, it’s cheaper. When consuming, do be very be mindful of the 400 mg a day recommendation — two to four pills per day, depending on the brand and dosage. Surpassing it is quite uncomfortable for many, and you’ll feel more jittery and anxious than awake. Despite being much more similar to caffeine powder than coffee, pre-packaged caffeine pills are not very dangerous unless you are a literal child or take a handful at once.
The undesirability of caffeine pills and the appeal of coffee are difficult to argue against. One has a reputation for being a study drug to fuel all-nighters, the other for being a vital pleasure of adult life. While the environmental, cost and calorie impacts of society switching its preference to caffeine pills would be very real, if you’re making the leap, be prepared for the fact that you’ll likely be making it alone.