Health Canada extended the use of caffeine to non-cola soft drinks last year, even as it was being warned that children are already consuming too much of the stimulant, CBC News has learned.
How much caffeine?
Canada's blocking of IRN-BRU, the leading non-cola soft drink in Scotland, was "a long-standing trade irritant," according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
The drink contains caffeine, so it couldn't be sold in Canada, though the manufacturer had tried for years to get into the Canadian market.
"For decades, Canada was one of the few places in the world that insisted caffeine couldn't be added to those non-cola drinks," CBC senior investigative correspondent Diana Swain reported Monday on The National.
"But last year that rule was quietly dropped by Health Canada — not because caffeine was suddenly good for kids … but because it was good for trade."
Health Canada's own internal research cautioned about the tradeoff.
"The current intake of caffeine from cola-based beverages for certain subsets of the population such as children … already exceeds H.C.'s recommendations," Health Canada's internal research said.
In the next line, it warns that that letting more companies add caffeine to soft drinks will only lead to more kids getting too much of it.
Initially, no one from Health Canada would agree to talk to CBC News on camera, but the department did send a written response: "Health Canada's decision to permit the addition of caffeine to non-cola soft drinks was based solely on health and safety considerations."
Later, appearing on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said repeatedly that the department's decision was based only on scientific evidence.
"Based on science and safety information, Health Canada reviewed the information and made the recommendation," she said. "And ultimately, that’s the role of Health Canada, based on the best information available at the time. And safety is the basis of their recommendation."
For Canadian parents, keeping their children away from caffeine has never been tougher. At one time, steering kids toward non-cola sodas was the way to go.
Now with caffeine in non-cola drinks, the task has become less straightforward — and caffeine appears to be growing more popular among students.
"If I don't have my Monster or I don't have my frappuccino … I’m going to be tired," one student told CBC News.
Last year, a panel reporting to Health Canada said that energy drinks such as Red Bull, Rockstar and Monster should be renamed "stimulant drug-containing drinks" and only be sold under the direct supervision of a pharmacist.
The panel, whose report was obtained by Postmedia News, said stricter control of energy drinks is important in order to address consumer confusion, especially among young people who can now purchase the caffeinated beverages at convenience stores alongside sports drinks, juices and pop.
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"This would more formally signal to the general public that these are drug products, not foods," the November 2010 report said.
At one point in 2010, Health Canada had planned to require energy drink makers to add a risk statement on cans: "Irregular heart rate or rhythm have been known to occur, in which case discontinue use and consult a health-care practitioner."