The concern over whether an energy drink is sold as a beverage or as a natural-health product goes far beyond semantics. New regulations that require highly caffeinated energy drinks to be sold as beverages is sending the wrong message, suggesting that they are nutritious and safe, according to the former chair of a federal panel on the issue.
"There is nothing nutritional in these. These are drugs," said Noni MacDonald, professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University who led the Health Canada panel, which convened in 2010. "This is worse than pop."
Controversy over energy-drink regulations emerged again this week following reports that some energy-drink manufacturers in the United States are rebranding their products as beverages instead of as supplements. In Canada, the federal government has already introduced changes that require energy drinks to be marketed and sold as beverages, not natural-health products.
Under existing food-and-drug regulations, product manufacturers are required to provide specific ingredient and nutritional information. It also allows Health Canada to cap the amount of caffeine in energy drinks. Single-serve containers (591 millilitres or less) can't exceed 180 milligrams of caffeine. That's more than the amount of caffeine in a regular 237 millilitre cup of coffee (which has about 135 milligrams of caffeine, according to Health Canada).
Health Canada recently backtracked on a decision to exempt popular "energy shots" from the new regulations. The shots, small bottles that can be consumed in a gulp or two, can't exceed 200 milligrams of caffeine a serving. That's the same amount of caffeine in a large, 591 millilitre Tim Hortons coffee.
To experts such as MacDonald, the amount of caffeine allowed in energy drinks is still excessively high, particularly considering many young people, who may be more susceptible to the effects of caffeine, consume them. The energy shots are particularly egregious, she said. "You could drink five of them with no trouble," MacDonald said.
Jim Shepherd, of Toronto, whose 15-year-old son died after consuming an energy drink, said the new limits do little to curb the risks posed by these beverages. His son developed an irregular heartbeat, which caused sudden death. It's "well above reasonable recommendations for most growing bodies," he wrote in an e-mail, adding that it is important to protect children from energy drinks the same as they are protected from alcohol and tobacco.
Consumption of energy drinks has been linked to multiple deaths and serious injuries. In Canada, they have been linked to three deaths and more than 80 side effects, which can include headache, anxiety, irregular heartbeat and even seizures. Last year, U.S. regulators said they were investigating 13 deaths linked to energy drinks. The manufacturers continue to deny allegations their products were a factor in the deaths or serious injuries.
Changing the definition of energy drinks so they fall under the "food and beverage" category rather than being labelled as natural-health products is also problematic, according to MacDonald. It's a tacit endorsement of the product and implies to the general public that the government has given them a stamp of approval, she said.
In 2011, the Health Canada panel on energy drinks issued a number of recommendations to clamp down on energy drinks. The group said energy drinks should only be sold under supervision of a pharmacist and should be called "stimulant drug containing drinks." The panel specifically recommended that energy drinks not be moved into the food-and-beverage category because of their high caffeine content. The majority of the recommendations were not implemented.
Health Canada has granted energy drinks a temporary marketing authorization, which allows the companies to sell their products while the government continues to gather information about their safety.