Ottawa — The federal government has introduced rules to limit the amount of caffeine allowed in so-called energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster.
But the limits are much more lenient than those suggested by an expert panel. They cap caffeine at 180 milligrams per drink — as much as a medium cup of coffee — instead of the recommended 80.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq will also require the drinks to have clear labels that list the amounts of caffeine, vitamins and other ingredients.
And the drinks will have to carry a warning that they are not recommended for children or pregnant or breastfeeding women and should not be mixed with alcohol.
The rules are a response to long-standing concerns that the caffeine-loaded beverages are being overconsumed by teens and tweens who don’t understand the potential side effects.
“I believe today’s changes will be especially helpful to the parents of teenagers who regularly consume energy drinks,’’ Aglukkaq said in a statement.
The changes are a far cry from the recommendations proposed recently by an expert panel.
The panel wanted Health Canada to treat the drinks as medication, label them as “stimulant drug-containing drinks’’ and allow sales only from behind the pharmacist’s counter.
Aglukkaq says she thinks the new rules provide consumers with better information but still give them a choice of what they want to drink.
“I firmly believe that it’s up to individuals and parents to make their own decisions when it comes to what they eat and drink,’’ Aglukkaq said.
The panel wanted to limit consumption to those over 18.
“Many of these newer ‘energy’ drinks are, in reality, oral delivery systems for stimulant drugs such as caffeine,’’ the experts said in their report.
The panel urged the government to treat the products as a medication, with explicit warnings about adverse reactions such as insomnia, anxiety and heart palpitations.
It also recommended that the government make an effort to differentiate between caffeine-laden drinks and sports drinks such as Gatorade and other electrolyte-replacement beverages that are considered safe for children.
The caffeinated energy drinks have taken off in recent years, with brands multiplying on store shelves. Health Canada estimates about seven million of them are consumed every month in Canada.
They usually contain about the same amount of caffeine as a couple of cups of coffee, but the effects on teenagers and the effects of the drinks when mixed with alcohol, have not been properly explored, the panel said.
The drinks need to be considered as drugs, not foods, the report urged.
“In the absence of real therapeutic and medically indicated benefits, the panel considers that the risks associated with the use of these drugs outweigh the benefits,’’ it stated.
In background documents, Health Canada said it went against the advice of the panel because it was just “one of the critical elements’’ in dealing with the drinks.
The federal lobbyists’ registry shows the department and the minister were lobbied by Red Bull Canada Ltd., the Canadian Beverage Association and Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada Co., on the subject.
Aglukkaq is putting the regulations out to the public for a 30-day consultation. After that, Health Canada will spend six months co-ordinating a transition with the industry, with the expectation that everyone will be compliant within 18 to 24 months.
The department says many energy products already meet the proposed limits for caffeine and would only have to adjust their labelling to include ingredients and nutrients. Others, however, may have to reformulate certain drinks.