It's so ubiquitous it's considered an essential part of our culture - but is caffeine dangerous?

America's obsession with caffeine continues to grow by leaps and bounds. We're long past the already absurd domain of Big Gulp-sized frappucinos; the chemical is packaged and sold as energy drinks, pills, dissolvable strips - even caffeine-infused marshmallows.

But we may finally be approaching the limits of our appetites. A spate of recent caffeine-related deaths is challenging the perception that caffeine is a safe and legal high. Over the last four years, 13 people have died in incidents that involve 5-Hour Energy, the 2-ounce drink which boasts in television ads that it's been recommended by 73 percent of doctors. Similarly, the Federal Drug Administration acknowledged in October that five additional people have died in incidents that involve Monster Energy.

Caffeine has long flown under the radar of the FDA's aggressive drug testing, in part because energy drinks are often sold as either beverages or dietary supplements, and in part because caffeine has become so ubiquitous in American society that it's considered an essential part of our 24-7 culture. The chemical's powers are so storied that some have even claimed it's the basis of the global capitalist structure and industrialized society itself. "The widespread use of caffeinated drinks - replacing the ubiquitous beer - facilitated the great transformation of human economic endeavor from the farm to the factory," asserted a National Geographic cover story. Five-Hour Energy capitalized on this belief, marketing itself as a remedy for "hardworking adults who need an extra boost of energy."

But would Americans consume caffeine if they knew the drug's true effects? Chemically, caffeine mimics adenosine, a neurochemical that effectively acts as a time clock for your body's nervous system. Without caffeine, adenosine keeps track of the number of neurons that fire in your brain throughout the day until you've clocked so much activity that it's time for the precious reward of sleep. Caffeine, however, temporarily blocks the adenosine time clock, allowing your neurochemicals to fire like it's 1999 without causing you to pass out. As FDA filings reveal, the real-world consequence for caffeine overdose can be fatal. Since 2009, nearly 100 people reported 5-Hour Energy's consumption being associated with adverse medical issues. About a third of the filings included potentially fatal issues like heart attacks, convulsions and even a spontaneous abortion, according to an analysis by the New York Times.

Even more disturbingly, in 2009 energy drinks were somehow related to more than 13,000 emergency room visits, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In addition to caffeine, energy drinks like 5-Hour Energy also include ingredients like vitamin B and taurine, an organic acid that has lacks scientific evidence to support claims of its energy-giving properties.

Despite the deaths, the FDA has so far refused to reevaluate the regulation process for energy drinks and other caffeine-carrying products that masquerade as health supplements.

About the author

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and activist in New York City