Group Wants Ban on 2 Types of Caramel Coloring in Sodas

CSPI States That Caramel Coloring Produced With Ammonia Contains 2 Carcinogens

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on February 15, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 16, 2011 -- Two types of caramel coloring used in some sodas and foods contain two carcinogens and should be banned, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

“We are calling on the FDA to ban the use of caramel coloring in colas and certain other foods,” CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson said during a teleconference.

The caramel coloring used in some sodas is manufactured via a chemical reaction between sugars, ammonia, and sulfates. These reactions produce the two carcinogens: 2-methylimidazole (2-MEI) and 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), he says. These chemicals have been shown to cause cancer in mice and rats.

Representatives from the beverage industry and from the Coca-Cola Company reject the claims that the additives are dangerous, and Coca-Cola notes in a statement to WebMD that 4-MEI "forms normally in the ‘browning reaction’ while cooking, even in one’s own kitchen."

Jacobson says that 2-MEI and 4-MEI "are not potent carcinogens, but it is totally inappropriate to accept any risk from artificial coloring that has no nutritional or preservative value."

Natural alternatives -- including dark colorings from beets or carrots -- do exist, he says. Alternatively, the soda industry could market clear colas.

Next Steps?

The FDA will now review the petition. “The FDA moves slowly and I suspect that they will try to persuade the industry to use natural coloring,” Jacobson says.

California has added 4-MEI to its list of carcinogens and is pursuing legislation that requires any product containing elevated levels to carry a warning label. For 4-MEI, levels higher than 16 micrograms per person per day from an individual product would require a warning.

Jacobson says some sodas have 4-MEI levels more than eight times higher than that. “The level is quite significant,” he says.

The sugar in regular soda does pose a greater health threat than these two chemicals, he says. But “if you are looking for yet another reason to avoid soda pop, this is a good one,” he says. “Soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, and a sprinkling of carcinogens,” he says.

Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the Washington-D.C. based National Center for Public Policy Research, follows health and science issues. “You cannot make firm conclusions about human health based on animal studies,” he says.

Stier says this is part of a campaign against soda and has nothing to do with carcinogens and cancer. “Limiting sugary soda is a good idea,” he says. “Diet sodas are a great substitute for people watching their weight.”

American Beverage Association, Coca-Cola Respond

The Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association (ABA), a trade association representing companies making nonalcoholic drinks, takes issue with the new petition to ban caramel coloring.

“4-MEI is not a threat to human health. There is no evidence that 4-MEI causes cancer in humans. No health regulatory agency around the globe, including the Food and Drug Administration, has said that 4-MEI is a human carcinogen,” they point out in a statement. “This petition is nothing more than another attempt to scare consumers by an advocacy group long-dedicated to attacking the food and beverage industry.”

Further, the group states that this chemical is virtually ubiquitous and found in trace amounts in a wide variety of foods and beverages. “Consumers can take confidence in the fact that people have been safely drinking colas for more than a century, as well as consuming the wide variety of foods and beverages containing 4-MEI, from baked goods and breads to wine and coffee.”

Coca-Cola says, "CSPI’s statement irresponsibly insinuates that the caramel used in our beverages is unsafe and maliciously raises cancer concerns among consumers. This does a disservice to the very public for which CSPI purports to serve. In fact, studies show that the caramel we use does not cause cancer. Further, the caramel we use does not contain the 2-MEI alleged by CSPI."

The ABA is also taking on the pending legislation in California.

A group of plaintiffs including the ABA has filed a lawsuit against the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment for its wrongful listing of 4-MEI as a carcinogen. “The state agency’s decision does not reflect sound science and failed to follow its own regulations.”

Show Sources


Jeff Stier, a senior fellow, National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C.

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C.

Center for Science in the Public Interest teleconference.

Statement, American Beverage Association.

Statement, Coca-Cola Company.

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