Caffeine Powder: Emerging Drug Trend?

caffeine powder


This is the third in a series of posts about drug trends in the United States and other countries. Previously I looked at drug use in San Francisco and at Burning Man. In this post I will begin to look at emerging drug trends, drugs that are newer on the scene or are making a comeback.

Media Hype

The media do not necessarily report accurately about the harm related to the use of various drugs; drug use tends to be sensationalized. This can lead to people dismissing the negative consequences associated with certain drugs. What is needed is a balanced approach to inform the public of the realistic hazards which may influence a person’s choice to use a drug or not. I will, therefore, look at information from governmental sources such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) as well as press accounts.

Caffeine Powder as Emerging Drug Trend

The most recent emerging drug trend according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Community Epidemiology Work Group (CEWG) is caffeine powder. Some highlights from the latest report about caffeine powder include:

        • Ohio high school senior died due to overdose of powdered caffeine
        • Bags of bulk caffeine powder offered online and bought for weight loss and athletic performance
        • One teaspoon of caffeine is equal to 25 cups of coffee which is a lethal amount
        • Overdose can cause erratic and fast heartbeat, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea and disorientation
        • Very easy to overdose because it is difficult to measure correct dosage with ordinary kitchen implements
        • Recommended that caffeine powder be avoided altogether
        • Parents should be aware of this form of caffeine and be alert to the hazard

A Sign of Things to Come? Perhaps…

This CEWG warning about caffeine powder is dated July 2014 and appears to be most immediately in response to the death of an Ohio teenager in May 2014. I looked at the the CEWG regional reports that were presented in June 2014, after this incident. None of the reporting areas in the United States list caffeine powder as a drug trend.

While not occurring in the United States, another recent death took place in Britain when a 23 year-old man took two teaspoons of caffeine powder and washed it down with an energy drink in 2010.

Dr. Henry Spiller, who directs the poison control center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, said that in the last year there have been 30 caffeine powder overdoses reported to poison control centers nationally. He also reported that his poison control center had three reports of people hospitalized due to misuse of caffeine powder.

FDA Concerns

Caffeine has been on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and American Poison Control’s radar for several years now. In 2010 the FDA warned manufacturers to take beverages containing alcohol and caffeine off the market. Wrigley’s Gum also took their caffeinated gum off the market in 2013 after the FDA expressed concerns.

In Conclusion

Powdered caffeine is marketed online and in stores and can be far more potentially lethal than either energy drinks or caffeine tablets since measuring the amount is difficult and the lethality of the dose is indeterminate. It therefore comes as no surprise that the FDA is presently considering regulatory action.

There is more information about the facts and fiction of caffeine in its various forms here.

How to Use the Google Ngram Viewer: Overdose


Google has an interesting tool to play with, Google Ngram Viewer. It allows you to see how the percentage of words plot out over time based on what is termed “a corpus of books” and gives you an idea of how words are trending in the popular culture. In other words, it provides a graph of how often a word or phrase is mentioned in the texts of each year by percentage. This allows for comparing the percentage use of a particular word in published books across time. The corpus is composed of the large number of books that Google has scanned in from public libraries.

I thought it would be interesting to look at a few words in the substance use and mental health fields, things that are of interest in the news presently. So let’s start with overdose in this post since it has gotten quite a lot of attention lately. I used the case sensitive and English-only options for the word overdose. In Figure 1 I chose a smoothing factor of 3 as recommended to make the graph more readable. To initially get a broad overview the first graph spans the time period from 1500 to 2008.

From the Figure 1 graph we can see that the word overdose does not appear in print before the 1720’s. It appears that the term may not have entered the lexicon until this time. Also, to investigate the plateaus in the data in Figure 1, I reduced the smoothing factor to 0 in Figure 2 to determine during which years the term ‘overdose’ was used more often.



Figure 1

If you move your cursor along the x-axis in Figure 2 you can see that the first mention of the word overdose is in 1724 and 1725. However, when performing a Google Books search for 1724 and 1725 we find references that, instead of years, represent numbered laws in the California legal code and page numbers in journals and nursing texts. This illustrates why it is important to drill down to actually look at the published books of the time period in Google Books. It appears that before 1812 the word overdose referred to elements applied in excess for agricultural purposes. In 1812 we find the first mention in Google Books of overdose in conjunction with a drug, opium.



Finally, in Figure 3, the N-gram graph reveals the mention of the word overdose increasing very gradually until the mid-1960’s at which time the percent of mentions increases by about a factor of 4. The trend has been steeply upward since then with the exception of a downward turn from 2001 to 2008. Data is not available after 2008 unfortunately.



These trends reflect the frequency with which the phenomenon of overdose has been written about in the totality of Google books. Creating and viewing these Ngrams gives us information that, while limited in validity, can stimulate our thinking about how the written language reflects the issues of various time periods. Not exacting but interesting nonetheless.

You can learn more about Ngram viewer here.