A Consumer Reports investigation reveals that the ingredient that gives many colas their golden-brown color, may cause cancer.
The magazine reports that the caramel-coloring ingredient added to many sodas contains the chemical 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), which has caused cancers in animal studies. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer and the state of California both warn of the chemical’s cancer-causing potential. California regulations limit 4-MeI exposure to 29 micrograms a day for the average consumer. Foods and beverages exceeding that limit must carry this warning on their labels: “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer.”
Despite the labeling requirement, a Consumer Reports analysis of sodas purchased in California found that a 12-ounce serving of Pepsi One or Malta Goya exceeded the permitted 4-MeI level and there was no warning on the label. Ten other brands tested met the California standard, under which the risk of cancer from 4-MeI is estimated to be about one case in every 100,000 lifetimes of daily exposure, according to CNN. Consumer Reports toxicologist, Dr. Urvashi Rangan, expressed concern “about both the levels of 4-MeI we found in many of the soft drinks tested and the variations observed among brands, especially given the widespread consumption of these types of beverages.” Rangan called 4-MeI exposure an avoidable and unnecessary risk for consumers.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently set limits on 4-MeI in food, but Consumer Reports calls for federal standards for 4-MeI and urged the FDA to”require labeling of specific caramel colors in the ingredient lists of food where it is added, so consumers may make informed choices.” Certain classes of caramel coloring do not contain 4-MeI, according to the FDA.
CNN reports that the FDA is reviewing available safety data and is testing a variety of food and beverages with 4-MeI to determine if regulatory action is necessary.