Health Canada has placed new caffeine limits on microsized energy drinks, as the U.S. investigates reports of possible links between one brand and a number of deaths and injuries in that country.
A spokesman from Health Canada confirmed on Tuesday that "energy shots" sold in Canada will be subject to a cap of 200 milligrams of caffeine each – about the same amount as a large Tim Horton's coffee.
Energy shots are caffeine-packed drinks that are typically sold in small plastic bottles near the cash register at convenience stores and gas stations. They are slightly larger than a shot glass and are often marketed as a natural alternative to coffee.
The new caffeine limit comes as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigates reports that 13 people died over the past four years after drinking 5-Hour Energy, a popular brand of energy shot. The reports point only to a suspected link and are not conclusive, the FDA says.
Some experts worry that the smaller-sized beverages have the potential to be particularly dangerous because they make it easier to consume large amounts of caffeine at once. "You can drink a lot more of them very quickly and get up to toxic levels, very fast," said Matthew Stanbrook, a deputy editor with the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Health Canada licensed more than a dozen varieties of energy shots in the past month alone, as it transitioned from a temporary system that allowed some "natural health products" to be sold without a licence while the department completed a more thorough evaluation. That temporary system ended earlier this week.
Unlike larger-volume energy drinks, which are regulated as foods, Health Canada considers energy shots to be "natural health products" because it believes consumers view them as "doses" rather than refreshments.
In addition to the new caffeine limit, energy shots must clearly state the specific quantity of caffeine they contain as well as other active ingredients, cautions and recommended doses, according to a Health Canada spokesman. They must also indicate that the products are not suitable for children, pregnant women or others who are sensitive to caffeine.
The new caffeine limit does not go as far as the regulations placed on larger-sized energy drinks, such as Red Bull and Monster. In the fall of 2011, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced that those beverages would be subject to a caffeine limit of 180 mg for a single-serving container – a change that began to come into effect last month.
The 200-mg limit on caffeine in energy shots appears to already have forced at least one company to change its formula. The extra-strength version of 5-Hour Energy currently sold on the shelves in Ottawa contains 220 mg of caffeine.
Asked about the changes to the product's formulation, a spokeswoman for 5-Hour Energy said on Monday that the company complies with regulations wherever its product is sold.
Most of the energy shots that were licensed for sale in Canada during the past month contain between 100 and 200 mg of caffeine, which is in the same range as many caffeine pills. Health Canada recommends that healthy adults consume no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day from all sources.
In a statement issued by her office, Ms. Aglukkaq noted that energy-shot companies are required to report adverse reactions to their products to Health Canada, which reviews those reports.
"Our government is committed to protecting the health and safety of Canadians," she said. "Health Canada has been very clear that energy shots are not recommended for children. They must be clearly labelled so that Canadians can make informed decisions about the amount of caffeine they consume."