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.
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.
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.
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.
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.