A bizarre new social media challenge called “dry scooping” is making the rounds on TikTok. It’s also making some people severely sick—and seriously worrying health professionals.
Dry scooping refers to putting a scoop of pre-workout powder (or sometimes protein powder) in your mouth, instead of mixing the powder with water or another liquid and drinking it as intended. People typically take powdered pre-workout supplements in the hopes of getting a boost in physical energy and mental focus before hitting the gym, Yasi Ansari, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics based in Los Angeles, and National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells SELF. The idea behind dry scooping, Ansari says, is to amp up those effects even more.
But according to several TikTok videos and news reports, the practice can endanger people’s health. For instance, one 20-year-old woman went to the hospital with a heart attack after dry scooping, Buzzfeed reported. And Newsweek reported on a fitness influencer who chased four dry scoops with another four scoops mixed with water and went to the ER with dangerously high blood pressure and brain swelling. Another woman appeared to have trouble breathing after dry scooping, according to Newsweek.
The health risks are real, and experts are concerned.
“There's a couple of very significant concerns that I have about this challenge,” emergency medicine physician and toxicologist Kelly Johnson-Arbor, M.D., co-medical director at the National Capital Poison Center, tells SELF. The dry scooping trend is reminiscent of the cinnamon challenge from years ago that Poison Control got many calls about—and anticipates more people having health scares if more people try dry scooping, Dr. Johnson-Arbor says. “I think people should be really careful with this."
Let’s start with the potential dangers of what is actually in these powders—at least, according to the label. (More on that in a minute.) Pre-workout supplements commonly contain ingredients such as carbs, caffeine, amino acids, creatine monohydrate, green tea extract, and B vitamins, Ansari says. Research suggests some of these ingredients may help enhance athletic performance for some people, while many of their supposed benefits are unproven.
These individual ingredients can be safe in healthy people when taken as directed, meaning they're taken in the recommended serving and preparation, Ansari says. But everyone’s body is a little different, and when you’re consuming a concentrated blend of multiple ingredients you can’t know what to expect. “Not everyone will react the same to pre-workout products when they’re properly mixed with fluids, so imagine taking concentrated forms of the supplement,” Ansari explains. And since many products contain proprietary blends, it can be hard to know exactly how much of these various ingredients you're consuming, Ansari says. “How do you know if the concentrated blend of ingredients you’re consuming at once isn’t going to negatively affect you? It may not be one single ingredient but rather the mix.”
Even relatively benign and well-studied ingredients can be risky too. Pre-workout powders can contain high concentrations (100mg or more per serving) of caffeine, Anari says, which is about the same as a cup of coffee). That can definitely cause symptoms like jitteriness, an upset stomach, and an elevated heart rate, especially when taken undiluted and/or in greater amounts than directed, Ansari says. In severe excess, “caffeine can definitely be very toxic and very dangerous,” Dr. Johnson-Arbor says.
A caffeine overdose, which causes symptoms such as heart palpitations, chest pain, trouble breathing, and dizziness, can land you in the hospital, Dr. Johnson-Arbor says. Life-threatening caffeine overdoses are more likely to occur and be life threatening in individuals who have underlying heart problems, take medications that cause similar effects, have a low caffeine tolerance, or are also drinking other caffeinated beverages at the same time, Dr. Johnson-Arbor says.
The bigger concern about pre-workout powders, though, might be what you don't know is in them.
“These workout supplements are not considered foods or drugs. They're considered dietary supplements, and that industry is highly unregulated in the United States,” Dr. Johnson-Arbor explains. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test dietary supplements before they go to market, and what is written on the package is not always what's in them. “Just because something is available over-the-counter or online does not necessarily mean that it's safe,” Dr. Johnson-Arbor says. “[Pre-workout powders] are not entirely benign.”
Supplementary powders can contain more or less of the ingredients than stated—or contain substances not listed at all, whether due to deceptive or inaccurate labeling or contamination. When it comes to pre-workout powders marketed as energy boosters, “They might just contain B vitamins or something innocuous like that, but there are supplements that contain drugs that can cause you to become very, very much revved up,” Dr. Johnson-Arbor says. A number of stimulants and similar compounds have been banned in the U.S. over safety concerns, but poison control centers and hospitals still see individuals who have been exposed to these substances, Dr. Johnson-Arbor says, meaning people are ingesting them from mislabeled or illegal products. Researchers have found banned stimulants in workout and weight-loss supplements labeled under misleading names, for instance.
These risks apply to supplements across the board (including pre-workout powders taken as directed), and taking a powder without diluting it with water would only increase the danger. Plus, people may be particularly inclined to use pre-workout powders in excess, Dr. Johnson-Arbor points out. “People think that if they get a little more energy from a single scoop, maybe taking five scoops will give them five times the energy and that'll be okay."
The last major hazard of swallowing a large amount of dry powder is the potential for choking or having trouble breathing. While many people will be able to get rid of the uncomfortable sensation with some coughing and sputtering, individuals with underlying medical conditions, like respiratory issues, can have serious consequences. People who have asthma might have an asthma attack, Dr. Johnson-Arbor says. For people who have lung issues, aspirating powder into their lungs can potentiate those symptoms and cause serious harm, Dr. Johnson-Arbor says. (That group of people is larger than usual right now, Dr. Johnson-Arbor points out, given the potential long-term lung issues that can follow a COVID-19 infection.)
For most folks, the potential risks of dry scooping outweigh the supposed benefits—by a ton.
“Pre-workout supplements are generally not needed for most active individuals,” says Ansari, adding that food is the best (and safest) way for most people to get the nutrients they need for a great workout. If you do want to try enhancing your performance with a supplement, Ansari recommends connecting with a physician or sports registered dietitian first, always taking the supplement as directed (meaning in the recommended dosage and mixed with fluids), and going with a brand that has been certified by a third-party testing body like NSF or Informed-Choice (which help ensure supplement safety and quality).
In the scenario you or someone you know does end up in a scary situation, Dr. Johnson-Arbor encourages people to feel comfortable contacting Poison Control. “If they feel ill in any way after trying this challenge or any other social media challenge, people should know that Poison Control is available 24/7,” she says. “It's always free to the public, and we're here to help.”
Originally Appeared on SELF