Watchdog group says caramel coloring in sodas causes cancer

by TMP Editor on March 9, 2012

Another reason to avoid soda soft drinks may have emerged from recent research. A U.S. consumer watchdog group said it found unsafe levels of a cancer-causing chemical in several popular soft drink brands. Soda industry lobbyists denounced the study and the federal government maintains that levels of the chemical in question are safe for human consumption.

cancer risk with brown soda coloring

Another PR problem for soda

The U.S. soda industry sells nearly 10 billion cases of soft drinks a year. But per-capita soda consumption in the U.S. has fallen about 16 percent since 1998 as the role soft drinks play in obesity becomes more widely known. And now, the soda industry has another PR problem on its hands: cancer.

This week the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wrote a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommending a ban on the caramel coloring used to make colas and other soft drinks brown. The CSPI said it found unsafe levels of the chemical known as 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MI, used to make caramel color in cans of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Snapple Group Inc’s Dr. Pepper, and Whole Foods 365 Cola.

Coke and cancer risk

CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said “Coke and Pepsi, with the acquiescence of the FDA, are needlessly exposing millions of Americans to a chemical that causes cancer.” The watchdog group estimated that the average level of 4-MI in soda translates to a lifetime cancer risk of 5 out of 100,000 people in the population. CSPI lab analyses showed that the amount of 4-MI in a 12-ounce can of soda exceeds by a factor of five the 29-microgram limit recommended by California.

Outrageous claims?

The American Beverage Association, a lobbying group that represents soda manufacturers, called the CSPI’s letter to the FDA “outrageous claims” and “scare tactics” not supported by science. The ABA emphasized that the FDA, European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada, consider caramel coloring safe for use in foods and beverages.

The chemical 4-MI is produced with a process mixing sugar with ammonia and sulfates. Toxicology studies have shown that 4-MI can cause cancer in lab animals. But it’s not clear whether it’s a human carcinogen — or whether the amounts detected in sodas pose a threat.

Getting a handle on 4-MI

The average American drinks the equivalent of about 608 cans of soda in a year. The FDA said a person would have to guzzle more than a thousand cans of soda a day to accumulate the levels that developed cancer in lab rats. Yet a spokesperson for the FDA told CBS News the agency is reviewing the data submitted by CSPI and is working with soda manufacturers to determine exactly how much 4-MI is used in colas and other food products. When it knows, the FDA will determine whether the food grade specification limit for 4-MI is adequate.

Is a 4-MI ban necessary?

Jacobson said the caramel coloring in soda is purely cosmetic and could be removed with no changes in taste. “If companies can make brown food coloring that is carcinogen-free the industry should do that, he said. “Otherwise the FDA needs to protect consumers from this risk by banning the coloring.”

Despite the dismissal of CSPI’s claims by the ABA, the public pressure is already having an effect. After the CSPI report was released, both Pepsi and Coca Cola announced a switch to caramel coloring that uses much less 4-MI, first in California and then eventually nationwide.

Source: Web MD, TIME, CBS News

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