Coke, Pepsi caramel coloring is carcinogen, CSPI claims

The Center for Science in the Public Interest claims that Coca-Cola and Pepsi have high levels of 4-MEI, a known animal carcinogen, while the American Beverage Association says the CSPI is simply trying to scare consumers by drawing unfounded conclusions not based on science.

Chemical analyses have found Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi contain high levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), a known animal carcinogen, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has announced. The carcinogen is formed, the group explained, when ammonia or ammonia and sulfites are used to manufacture the “caramel coloring” giving the sodas their distinctive brown colors.

The tests were commissioned by the CSPI.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, has not found that the caramel colorings used by the companies pose a risk to consumers.

"A consumer would have to consume well over a thousand cans of soda a day to reach the doses administered in the studies that have shown links to cancer in rodents," said Doug Karas, an FDA spokesman, in a statement.

Still, the FDA is reviewing the petition made by the CSPI to ban ammonia-sulfite caramel coloring, initially made by the group in Feb. 2011.

A spokesman for Coca-Cola did not mince words when responding to the allegations made by the CSPI.

"Unlike CSPI, the Coca-Cola Company deals in hard facts," said Coca-Cola spokesman Ben Sheidler in an emailed statement, Fox News reported. "Fact: The body of science about 4-MEI in foods or beverages does not support the erroneous allegations that CSPI would like the public to believe. The 4-MEI levels in our products pose no health or safety risks." Additionally, Sheilder added, "The caramel color in all of our ingredients has been, is and always will be safe. That is a fact."

The American Beverage Association (ABA) indicated in a statement that the CSPI is simply trying to scare consumers:

"This is nothing more than CSPI scare tactics, and their claims are outrageous. The science simply does not show that 4-MEI in foods or beverages is a threat to human health. In fact, findings of regulatory agencies worldwide, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada, consider caramel coloring safe for use in foods and beverages. CSPI fraudulently claims to be operating in the interest of the public's health when it is clear its only motivation is to scare the American people."

Also, the ABA indicated, 4-MEI, which has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a color additive and described as “generally recognized as safe,” is created during the heating of many foods considered safe to consume today.

“4-MEI forms in foods, such as caramel, during the heating, roasting and cooking process and is virtually ubiquitous,” the ABA explained, “[and is] found in trace amounts in foods and beverages that have been commonly consumed for decades, including baked goods, coffee, breads, molasses, soy sauce, gravies and some beers.”

The CSPI disagrees, however, with the safety of 4-MEI, and continues calling for the FDA to revoke its authorization of caramel colorings containing 4-MEI.

“Coke and Pepsi, with the acquiescence of the FDA, are needlessly exposing millions of Americans to a chemical that causes cancer,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a release. “The coloring is completely cosmetic, adding nothing to the flavor of the product. If companies can make brown food coloring that is carcinogen-free, the industry should use that. And industry seems to be moving in that direction. Otherwise, the FDA needs to protect consumers from this risk by banning the coloring.”

UPDATE: Coke, Pepsi make formula changes to avoid cancer warnings

Image: Wikimedia Commons