Caramel Colored Cancer

Caramel — a sweet, sticky confection created by heating sugars to create a characteristic brown color and flavor.

Seems like the perfect ingredient for traditionally caramel colored cola beverages.  Except food companies have added a few extra steps to the recipe.   To make the artificial brown caramel coloring commonly found in the ingredient list of popular soda brands like Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper, sugar and heat are still essential.   However, this chemical process adds ammonia and sulfites into the mix, under high pressure and temperatures.

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Sound dangerous?  Turns out it just might be.  These chemical reactions result in the formation of  4 methylimidazole (4-MeI), which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory rats.  While no such tests have been done on people, it is widely known that chemicals causing cancer in animals are considered to pose cancer threats to humans.  In fact,  the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared the chemical as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2011.  The risks were also high enough for the state of California, which now requires that all products sold in the state which would expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI in a day to carry a warning label under the state’s Proposition 65 law.

Despite these conclusions, there are still no existing federal limits on the amount of caramel color allowed in food and beverages, thus making it one of the most widely used food colorings in the country.  In addition to sodas, it can be found in some breads, sauces, crackers, processed meats, and even beer.

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So how much 4-MeI are we consuming? Consumer Reports just released a study  examining levels of 4-MeI in popular brands of soda.  Their research detected varying levels of 4-MeI in all sodas with caramel coloring listed on the ingredient list, with all containing at least 3 micrograms and several exceeding 29 micrograms per 12 ounce can.  Several products including Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and Malta Goya contained more than 6 times the requirement for a warning label in California.  Authors of the Consumer Reports’ study urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set a maximum level of the substance when it is added to soda or other products, to require labeling when it is added, and to forbid using the word “natural” on the labels of products which contain artificial caramel colors.

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In response to the study, a spokeswoman from PepsiCo (whose products contained some of the higher levels of 4-MeI) told USA Today that the average amount of soda consumed daily by those who drink it is less than the 12-ounce can Consumer Reports used as its basis for measurement. As a result, the company believes that people are not exceeding the intake limit of 29 micrograms a day.

Even if PepsiCo is correct (the spokeswoman conveniently left out how they came up with these details on daily soda consumption), what about those consumers who drink more than the average amount? Don’t they deserve at a least a warning label?  Or couldn’t PepsiCo just reduce the amount of 4-MeI in their product altogether? After Proposition 65 was passed in California, Coke did just that, leaving their products with some of the lowest levels of the carcinogen in the Consumer Reports study.

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Though the FDA still believes there is no harm in consuming products which contain caramel coloring, the recent study has prompted the organization to take another look, and I applaud them for doing so.   Unfortunately, until the FDA takes action, the best consumers can do to avoid exposure to 4-MeI is to choose soft drinks and other foods that do not list “caramel color” or “artificial color” on their ingredient list.

The Big G Stands for GMO’s: The Social Media Strategy that Lead to GMO-Free Cheerios

In 2012, General Mills developed a social media campaign encouraging consumers to visit their Facebook page and share “What Cheerios Means to You.”  They even designed a special app so users could turn any phrase into the cereal’s iconic font and yellow background, with the signature Cheerio dotting every “I.”

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Unfortunately for General Mills, the campaign generated exactly the opposite of the “feel-good” messages the company was hoping for.  In response to General Mills $1.1 million contribution to the anti-Proposition 37 campaign to label GMO’s in California, consumers covered the Facebook page with anti-GMO messages such as “GMO’s, No Thanks”, “Deception”, and even “Poison.”

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Of course, General Mills wasted no time in removing the app, but the damage had been done.  Thanks in part to the GMOInside, a coalition demanding a non-GMO food supply, the Facebook comments continued, even after the app was removed and the campaign ended.  But what happened next, turned out to be the biggest surprise of all.

Despite General Mills stance that GMO’s are perfectly safe, and their lobbying efforts against state level GMO labeling initiatives, the company apparently still took this consumer backlash to heart.  On January 2nd, General Mills announced that original Cheerios had been reformulated to be GMO-free.

The predominant ingredient in Cheerios was never in question, as there are no genetically modified oats, however, the sugar and cornstarch used in the product were assumed to be made from genetically modified crops.  The company now claims that they were able to source both ingredients without the use of GMO’s and will be labeling the product as such very soon.  Though we can’t be certain that the Facebook ambush is the only reason for the change, General Mills openly admitted that their decision stemmed from consumer demand.

Pressuring change from food companies via social media is a relatively new tactic, but it seems to be working quite well.  An article released in the New York Times last month described the many ways consumers are using social media to convince companies to reconsider ingredients, change the processing of their products, and alter their food labels.  Never before have consumers had such easy access to the top dogs of major food corporations, and several companies are actually starting to take note of the criticism.

Consumers still have a lot of questions for General Mills after their announcement.  If the company really cares, why aren’t the other Cheerios varieties being reformulated?  Better yet, why not make all General Mills cereals GMO-free? Will a third-party be confirming that the product is completely non-GMO before the labels start to appear?  If General Mills believes that consumers want GMO-free products, and are willing to make the necessary steps to create them, why are they fighting so hard to keep these products from being labeled?

If this first step, which even General Mills admitted didn’t take much effort, helps the company acquire new customers and increase profits, there is no question that the company will address these questions to meet consumer demand.  Social media sure is proving itself as an important tactic in the game of food reform.