A sweeping recall of energy drinks over the past few months has seen many brands pulled off the shelves across Canada due to high caffeine content and mislabelling. But some beverages with even higher caffeine amounts are still available, puzzling health experts.
Energy shots, exemplified by the popular brand 5-hour Energy, are tiny bottles that offer a quick fix of caffeine. Despite sharing similar ingredients, energy shots are allowed higher caffeine levels than standard energy drinks, which must have less than 180 milligrams of caffeine per serving to be sold in Canada.
Energy shots, in contrast, may contain up to 200 milligrams of caffeine per serving.
And the difference comes down to the fact energy shots are regulated as natural health products in Canada, while energy drinks are categorized as supplemented food products, according to Health Canada.
“These NHPs may contain up to 200 milligrams of caffeine per single dose; however, it is recommended consumers not exceed 400 milligrams per day,” a spokesperson from Health Canada told Global News in an email Thursday.
“Energy shot companies must also provide clear information on the labels about the quantity of caffeine and other active ingredients in the products as well as cautions and recommended doses.”
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Supplemented food products, the category which standard energy drinks fall under, are pre-packaged foods containing one or more added ingredients, such as vitamins, mineral nutrients, amino acids, caffeine or herbal extracts.
“Caffeinated energy drinks (CEDs), as supplemented foods, must have labels in both official languages, the Health Canada spokesperson said.
“CEDs must also include cautionary statements related to serving limits and that these beverages are not recommended for people under 14 years of age, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding or individuals sensitive to caffeine.”
A spokesperson for federal Health Minister Mark Holland referred Global News to Health Canada when asked about the difference in caffeine limits, which have left some experts perplexed.
“I can’t identify how it’s different other than the container is smaller and it actually has more caffeine,” said David Hammond, a professor in the School of Public Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo.
“You consume it the same way. And ironically, it’s one of the products that’s been associated with certain risks.”
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The risks Hammond mentioned are highlighted in 18 incident reports of suspected adverse reactions to 5-hour Energy shots in Canada since 2008 entered in the Canada Vigilance Adverse Reaction Online Database.
Reactions listed in that database include mention of increased blood pressure, tremors, a coma, arrhythmia, panic attacks and heart attacks.
However, the database does not provide conclusive information on the safety of health products or make a final determination about whether the consumption was the clinical cause.
The discrepancy in limits, though, has led some to call for the rules to be harmonized.
“It’s one thing if Health Canada said, ‘We don’t care about energy drinks or caffeinated energy drinks at all,’ but it does not make sense to say, ‘We care about it and then to exempt the one with the highest caffeine level,’” Hammond said.
The regulatory differences Hammond worries about come as Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) have recalled or slapped health warnings on approximately 16 energy drink brands due to their caffeine content and bilingual mislabelling since the end of May.
One of the latest recalls involved a major brand, Monster energy drinks, which were pulled off Canadian shelves on Aug. 11 because of the product’s non-compliances related to the caffeine content and labelling requirements, the CFIA stated.
In an email to Global News on Aug. 15, a spokesperson from Monster Energy said the company was not contacted by the CFIA regarding the recall and is “actively trying to get additional information from the regulator.
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“Monster takes compliance very seriously and specifically formulates and labels all products for sale and distribution in Canada to comply with Canadian requirements, including regulatory limitations on caffeine and bilingual labeling requirements. In addition, all Monster energy drinks for the Canadian market have been authorized for sale by Health Canada.
“Monster suspects that this product was formulated and labeled to meet the regulatory requirements of another country and was not intended for Canada, but nonetheless ended up in the possession of a third-party, unknown to Monster, that is named in the recall notice,” the spokesperson stated.
“It is likely that the products were transshipped from a country outside of Canada.”
Global News reached out to 5-hour Energy for a comment but did not hear back at the time of publication.
Energy shot versus energy drink
Energy shots and energy drinks traditionally include caffeine and vitamins, like B6 and B12, amino acids such as taurine, and other energy-stimulating ingredients such as ginseng and guarana.
Products like 5-hour Energy shots have 200 mg of caffeine in a 57-millilitre bottle — the equivalent of about half a dozen cans of Coke or nearly two Red Bulls. They are allowed to be sold in Canada.
However, brands that were recently recalled in Canada, like the Monster energy drink, had less than 180 mg of caffeine.
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When CFIA put out a recall on Monster Energy due to alleged mislabelling and caffeine content, it advised Canadians not to consume, serve or distribute the recalled product, adding that it should be thrown out or returned where purchased.
“If it’s exceeding 180 milligrams dose, that’s a bit of a jolt because caffeine is a stimulant,” David Ma, professor of human health and nutritional sciences at the University of Guelph, said, adding that a complaint or an inquiry could have initially sparked the investigation.
“And if you’re drinking successive beverages, then you’re very well past those limits. And you could wind up in the emergency room because you really don’t feel well.”
Ma added there seems to be a “gap” in regulations between energy drinks and shots, as they look alike.
“There might be some further thought needed to flush out a number of different issues around health, fairness in the marketplace,” he said. “And to be fair to these companies, they applied for it and they got approval.”
Global News reached out to 5-hour Energy about the product’s categorization under a natural health product in Canada but has not received a response.
Although energy shots are not consumed or perceived as foods, according to Health Canada, Hammond argued the rationale does “not square up.”
“These products were sold at the checkout where they put candy at the point of sale in grocery stores. It’s just everything wrong about how this product is being treated and the inconsistencies with the regulation for the drinks more generally,” he said.
Hammond co-authored a 2016 research paper calling for energy shots to be regulated as energy drinks. The paper cited an online Leger survey conducted with Canadian youth and young adults aged 12 to 24 years in October 2014 to examine perceptions of energy shots.
Respondents viewed an image of a popular energy shot and were asked which term best described it.
The vast majority (78.8 per cent) perceived the energy shot as an “energy drink” (vs. “supplement,” “vitamin drink,” “natural health product,” “soft drink” or “food product”), the survey found.
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Sylvain Charlebois, the director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, said he believes there may be a “loophole companies are exploiting” in the regulation.
He added that the CFIA and Health Canada are not sending the correct message with the inconsistency.
“I think that caffeine content wasn’t necessarily on the radar for the agency,” he said.
Why the energy drink recall now?
The energy drink recall started on May 30, when three flavours of energy drinks from G Fuel were recalled by the CFIA due to allegedly high levels of caffeine.
Many other recalls, involving popular brands like Monster and Prime Energy drinks, have happened since, amid a push to look more closely at the drinks in the United States.
On Monday, the CFIA told Global News in an email that the initial energy drink recall was triggered by the department’s inspection activities.
“Subsequent follow up activities, together with reports and findings of sales of non-compliant caffeinated energy drinks, have led to additional recalls. The CFIA makes decisions about recalls based on its own investigation and health risk assessments provided by Health Canada,” a spokesperson stated.
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The caffeinated energy drink sector in Canada is highly regulated, explained Glenford Jameson, a Toronto-based lawyer with expertise in the food sector. He noted that regulatory bodies such as the CFIA operate with constrained resources, meaning oversight may have been a reason.
The CFIA is largely a “complaints-based system,” meaning if a product is not adhering to Canadian guidelines, a complaint from consumers, the industry or another type of third party may spark an investigation, he said.
He believes more recalls may still come.
“Consumers are going to look at labels, industry groups are looking at labels, and competitors are looking at each other’s labels. And they’re saying like, wait a second,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether regulators will start cracking down on energy shots as well, but in the meantime, Health Canada on Tuesday renewed a warning about caffeinated energy drinks.
“Too much caffeine can have negative impacts on your health, such as insomnia, irritability, headaches and nervousness. CEDs are not recommended for those under 14 years old, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or people sensitive to caffeine as negative impacts on health may be more pronounced,” the warning said.
It made no mention of caffeinated natural health products.
— with files from Global News’ Sean Previl