Canada and Caffeine

February 8, 2012

In Canada, the issue with caffeinated energy drinks is about more than just alcohol.

Ever since its brilliant infusion with alcohol, arguably no other food or beverage product has received as much criticism as the caffeinated energy drink. Media coverage of mishandled consumption and easy access for children put products like Four Loco and Tilt in the crosshairs of concerned parents and state and federal regulators. But did a U.S. ban on alcoholic caffeine products put concern over caffeinated energy drinks to rest? Not so, says Health Canada, which last October announced a proposal to reclassify caffeinated energy drinks entirely.

In Canada, the issue of caffeinated energy drinks was always about more than just alcohol. At one point, the expert panel of Canadian Health Minister Leonna Aglukkaq suggested regulating the products as drugs (only to be sold in pharmacies) before eventually deciding on a looser Natural Health Product (NHP) classification. But after years of local consumption and a market value now totaling $318 million in Canada, the answer is clear: regulate these products as foods.

“Initially, we think that Health Canada classified energy drinks as NHPs because most of the ingredients that were in energy drinks were derived from herbs and natural sources,” says Rupika Malhotra, scientific and regulatory associate for the regulatory and scientific consulting firm Dicentra (Toronto). “Classifying energy drinks as NHPs would also allow for certain claims that you can’t put on food products. But [now that] energy drinks [have been] on the market for awhile, Health Canada was able to assess consumer patterns. It has decided that energy drinks are being consumed more as beverages than as dietary supplements, and often by younger subgroups.”

Energy shots, with their vial-like packaging and concentrated servings, are still considered NHPs under the new proposal.

Moving caffeinated energy drinks from NHP rules to food rules will require changes to the formulation and marketing of these products. For starters, Health Canada has proposed a limit of 180 mg of caffeine to any single-serving container, while mulling minimums and maximum levels for fortification with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other permitted ingredients. A nutrition facts panel will accompany each product.

Currently used warning labels-including “Do not mix with alcohol” and “Not recommended for children, pregnant/breastfeeding women, individuals sensitive to caffeine”-will still be mandated.

So how does Canada’s primary beverage lobbyist feel about the proposal?

“The Canadian Beverage Association (CBA) and its members are generally supportive of Health Canada’s decision to reclassify…” said CBA communications director Stephanie Baxter. “This decision will closer align Canada with how energy drinks are sold in over 160 other countries around the world.”

The realignment of caffeinated energy drinks with foods may even present cost-effective advantages for manufacturers. Site licensing as well as batch-by-batch sampling would no longer be required under the classification.

As of yet, there is no indication of when sweeping changes could affect the Canadian energy drink market. Dicentra tells us that firm regulatory changes could come in as little as six months and as late as 24 months. Furthermore, Health Canada has proposed a five-year transition period during which these beverages will be subject to Temporary Marketing Authorizations (TMAs) wherein product sales, consumption patterns, and adverse event reports are closely monitored. Findings from TMAs could potentially warrant rewriting of the legislation after those five years.

Even with all of the red tape, expect big changes for the Canadian energy drink market in the coming months.

For a broader look at the caffeine market, check out David A. Mark’s caffeine story.