Consumer Reports: Caramel coloring in food and drinks can contain a potential carcinogen

There may be more than fizz and bubbles in your soft drink, according to a recent study by Consumer Reports.

The most commonly used coloring in food and drinks is found to have a potential carcinogen that can lead to serious health risks.

The issue

Consumer Reports tested soft drinks that have caramel color and found some types of the artificial coloring contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI). 

In California, any food or drinks sold in state containing more than 29 micrograms of 4-MEIis supposed to carry a health warning label.

However, the study found all samples of PepsiOne and Malta Goya surpassed the legal amount of 4-Mel and the products tested from California were not labeled with a warning.

"There's no reason why consumers should be exposed to this avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food brown," says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., toxicologist and executive director of Consumer Reports' Food Safety and Sustainability Center. "Manufacturers have lower 4-MEIalternatives available to them. Ideally there would be no 4-MEIin food."

How does this affect our health?

A federal government study in 2007 showed 4-MEIcaused cancer in mice and the International Agency for Research on Cancer found the chemical to be "possibly carcinogenic to humans" in 2011, according to Consumer Reports.

What's worse? There's no federal limit for levels of 4-MEIin foods and drinks.

"It's possible to get 29 micrograms of 4-MEIin one serving of some of the drinks we tested. And even if your choice of soft drink contains half that amount, many people have more than one can per day," says Rangan. "Given that coloring is deliberately added to foods, the amount of 4-MEIin them should pose a negligible risk, which is defined as no more than one excess cancer case in 1 million people."

To meet that risk level, Consumer Reports' experts say a soft drink would need to contain about 3 micrograms or less per can. 

What the Consumer Reports study found

While Consumer Reports says the study was not big enough to recommend one brand of soda over another, both rounds of testing found the level of 4-MEIin the samples of PepsiOne and Malta Goya exceeded California's threshold level. 

During the first testing of Pepsi sold in the New York area, the drinks averaged a dangerously high 174 micrograms. However, only 32 micrograms were found in the second testing.

"The fact that we found lower amounts of 4-MEIin 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," says Dr. Rangan.

On average, Coke, Diet Coke, and Coke Zero came in under five micrograms per serving in testing, a level Consumer Reports' experts believe is more satisfactory. Sprite, a clear soda that was tested as a control, showed no significant levels of 4-MEI.

Consumer Reports told PepsiCo and Goya about its findings. Goya says it is looking into the matter. PepsiCo says its products sold in California meet that state's regulations for 4-MEIand it is voluntarily applying those same standards to the rest of the country within the next month.

Read the full article in Consumer Reports.

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