Chemical in Caramel Coloring Could Cause Cancer

The caramel color used in many soft drinks could be creating a health risk for those who ingest it, says Consumer Reports. Some types of artificial caramel coloring, the most widely used food coloring in the world, according to reports from market research firm Mintel, contain a chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), which could be carcinogenic.

In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that 4-Mel is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Although there is no federal limit, the cutoff point for daily consumption of the chemical is 29 micrograms, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (COEHHA). The COEHHA found that those who consume 29 micrograms of 4-Mel per day for a lifetime are exposed to a one in 100,000 risk of cancer. As such, California’s Proposition 65 law mandates that a warning label appear on any food or beverage that exposes consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-Mel per day.

4-Mel in Caramel Coloring

The chemical 4-Mel used in caramel coloring is formed by the interaction of ammonia with reducing sugars, according to the IARC. The caramel colorings used in popular soft drinks are made by heating carbohydrates with reagents under certain temperatures and pressures, resulting in “a dark brown colouring with a characteristic odour of burnt sugar.”

The type of caramel coloring containing 4-Mel that is used in soft drinks accounts for about 70 percent of the caramel coloring produced throughout the world. Another type of coloring containing 4-Mel—that used in bakery products, soy sauces, brown sauces and gravies, dehydrated soups, vinegars, and dark-brown beers—accounts for 20 to 25 percent of the caramel coloring used in the U.S. and 60 percent of the caramel coloring used in Europe.

Consumer Reports Testing

In its own test, Consumer Reports analyzed 81 cans and bottles of soft drinks from five different manufacturers. While it warns that its study was not large enough for them to offer a recommendation of one brand or another, Consumer Reports found that—in two rounds of testing of soft drinks purchased in California and New York between April and December of 2013—Pepsi One and Malta Goya contained more than 29 micrograms per can or bottle. The soft drinks bought in California containing 29 or more micrograms of 4-Mel did not carry a label warning of the cancer risk.

Differences were also shown in the soft drinks purchased in California from the soft drinks purchased in New York. For instance, in Consumer Reports’ initial test, the sample of regular Pepsi purchased in New York had a much higher level of 4-Mel than the sample purchased in California, which contained levels around or below 29 micrograms per can. Differences were also shown over time, with the early sample from New York containing 174 micrograms of 4-Mel and the later sample containing 32 micrograms.

“The fact that we found lower amounts of 4-Mel in our last round of tests suggests that some manufacturers may be taking steps to reduce levels, which would be a step in the right direction,” said toxicologist and Executive Director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety & Sustainability Center Dr. Urvashi Rangan.  Results from testing of Coke, Diet Coke, and Coke Zero showed less than 5 micrograms per can, a level experts at Consumer Reports find more acceptable. Sprite contained no significant levels of 4-Mel. A chart by Consumer Reports details the results of both rounds of testing.

Manufacturer and FDA Response

In response to the results of Consumer Reports’ tests, PepsiCo issued a statement saying that, because government data shows that the average amount consumed by people who drink diet soda is 100 milliliters per day—less than one-third of a 12-ounce can. The statement said PepsiCo did not believe Pepsi One requires a cancer-risk warning for that reason.

Currently, the FDA does not believe that 4-Mel creates a risk at the levels it currently appears in food. There is no federal standard for 4-Mel. Consumer Reports is in the process of petitioning the FDA to form such a standard.