By Dr. Mercola
In the realm of food coloring, caramel color sounds rather innocuous, natural even. Unlike artificial colors like FD&C Blue No. 1 or FD& C Yellow 5, which conjure up images of being created by a mad scientist in a lab, caramel color sounds like it comes from the age-old process of heating sugars to form dark-brown caramel.
But it doesn't. Furthermore, far from being innocuous, caramel color, which is widely used in brown soft drinks, may cause cancer due to 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), a chemical byproduct formed when certain types of caramel coloring are manufactured.
New research from Consumer Reports has also revealed that levels of 4-MeI may exist in sodas at levels above certain state limits, potentially posing a risk to soda drinkers.
How Much Cancer-Causing 4-MeI May Be in Your Soda?
There's no way to tell for certain whether 4-MeI is in soda, as it is listed on labels simply as caramel coloring or artificial coloring. While only two of the four types of caramel coloring contain the potentially carcinogenic chemical, caramel color is actually the single most used food coloring in the world,1 especially in brown-colored soft drinks.
The chemical 4-MeI was found to cause cancer in mice by a 2007 U.S. government study, and in 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared it to be "possibly carcinogenic to humans."
While there are still no federal limits, the state of California requires products to be labeled with a cancer warning if it exposes consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI per day (the amount that poses a one in 100,000 risk of cancer).
Consumer Reports tested 81 samples of soft drinks from five manufacturers and found certain samples from Pepsi and Malta Goya exceeded the permitted levels without carrying a warning label. According to Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., toxicologist and executive director of Consumer Reports' Food Safety & Sustainability Center:2
"'It's possible to get more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI in one can 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.
'Given that coloring is deliberately added to foods, the amount of 4-MeI in 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."
Pepsi Says 4-MeI Levels Meet Standards Based on One-Third Can a Day Consumption
When Consumer Reports notified PepsiCo of the test results, including findings that some cans of their soda may contain 32-174 micrograms of 4-MeI, they noted that California's warning label applies to a per day exposure, not per can. They then claimed that government data shows most people consume less than a third of a can of diet soda a day, which would make their products in-line with state regulations even if one can exceeds 29 micrograms.
Consumer Reports' researchers fired back, stating that their data show much higher consumption levels. According to Rangan, as ABC News reported:3
"PepsiCo arrived at their conclusion by including people with low-consumption rates, such as children under the age of 2, in their averages. 'We looked at the same data of regular soft drink users who can drink up to two and half servings a day… They were all over 20.'"
PepsiCo did, however, state that "reformulated" products that contain lower levels of 4-MeI would be available across the US by February 2014. As for Malta Goya, which had even higher levels of 4-MeI in its products, they provided no response to Consumer Reports as of this writing.
FDA Is Reviewing the Safety of Caramel Coloring
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to state that they have "no reason to believe" there is any immediate or short-term danger presented by 4-MeI in foods with caramel coloring.
However, they are currently reviewing "all available data" on the safety of 4-MeI to "determine what, if any, regulatory action needs to be taken."4 This could include federal limits set on the amount of 4-MeI that may be present in caramel coloring.
Consumer Reports is calling on the FDA to require more specific labeling that would alert consumers to what type of caramel coloring is in foods and beverages.
Only Class III and Class IV caramel color, which are made with ammonia compounds, contain 4-Mel; class I and II do not. In Europe, the specific types of coloring (class III or IV) are listed on food labels, but in the US only "caramel color" or "artificial color" must be listed. Consumer Reports has also asked the FDA to not allow a product to be called "natural" if it contains artificial colors, including caramel color.
One Year Later, Are Coke and Pepsi Removing 4-MeI as Promised?
It's been more than a year since Coke and Pepsi originally declared they would be reformulating their products to remove 4-MeI in their caramel coloring. The move initially came after the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) tested samples of Coke and Pepsi products from California and other states for 4-MeI, and found marked discrepancies in the Pepsi products:
"If you live in California, Coke and Pepsi products are made without 4-MeI, a chemical known to cause cancer. But in testing of cola products from 10 states, CEH found high levels of 4-MeI in ALL Pepsi cola products, while 9 out of ten Coke products were found without 4-MeI problems."5
It does appear that some strides have been made, as the latest Consumer Reports study found that levels of 4-MeI in soda samples purchased in New York had come down significantly by the time of their second testing. They noted:6
" …regular Pepsi from the New York area averaged 174 micrograms in the first test and 32 micrograms in the second. 'The fact that we found lower amounts of 4-MeI in 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."
For those who are wondering, it is possible to create brown soda without the use of potentially toxic caramel coloring. This artificial brown color is made by reacting corn sugar with ammonia and sulfites under high pressures and at high temperatures. This produces the chemicals 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole, which have been found to cause lung, liver, and thyroid cancer in lab rats and mice. But there are actually four kinds of caramel coloring used in the food industry, and while all four start out with some form of sugar, only the last two contain the potentially carcinogenic chemical 4-MeI:
- Plain caramel (caramel I)
- A reaction between sugar and sulfites (caramel II)
- A reaction between sugar and ammonium compounds (caramel III)
- A reaction between sugar and both sulfites and ammonium compounds (caramel IV)
Caramel coloring can be found in a wide variety of other common products beyond soda, too, including:
Fast-food beef Cat food and dog food Beer Chocolate Potato chips Soy sauce Sauce mixes, gravies, and batters Dark breads
Diet Soda Drinkers Consume More Calories
There are many reasons to give up your daily soda habit even if you drink soda without caramel coloring. This includes diet soda, which in many ways is even worse than regular soda. People who drink diet soft drinks daily may be 43 percent more likely to suffer from a vascular event, including a stroke or heart attack, for instance.7
Diet soda has also been linked to weight gain. In one study, diet soda drinkers' waists grew 70 percent larger than the waists of non-diet soda drinkers. Furthermore, those who drank two or more diet sodas a day had a 500 percent greater increase in waist size!8 A recent study from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health also revealed that people who drank diet sodas ate more calories at meals and snacks than those who drank sugar-filled sodas.9
So simply cutting calories by switching from regular soda to diet is not likely to be an effective weight-loss solution. The researchers believed that the artificial sweeteners in the diet soda activate reward centers in the brain, driving diet soda drinkers to consume even more food because they're not getting the "reward" their bodies expect from a sweet-tasting beverage.
Artificial sweeteners tend to trigger enhanced activity within your brain's pleasure centers, yet at the same time provide less actual satisfaction. This separation of the taste of sweetness from caloric content means that when you consume artificial sweeteners, your brain actually craves more of it because your body receives no satisfaction on a cellular level by the sugar imposter. This can actually contribute to not only overeating and weight gain, but also an addiction to artificial sweeteners, along with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke—even if your weight is normal.
Ditching Soda Is a Key to Better Health
If your soda doesn't contain artificial sweeteners, then it probably contains sugar, including high fructose corn syrup. The average 12-ounce can of soda contains 40 grams of sugar, at least half of which is fructose, so one can of soda alone would exceed your daily allotment.
Excess sugar consumption has been clearly linked to health problems like diabetes, heart attack, and much more, so it's likely that the less sugar you eat, the better. In order to break free, be sure you address the emotional component of your food cravings using tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). More than any traditional or alternative method I have used or researched, EFT works to overcome food cravings and helps you reach dietary success. Be sure to check out Turbo Tapping in particular, which is an extremely effective and simple tool to get rid of your soda addiction in a short amount of time.
If you still have cravings after trying EFT or Turbo Tapping, you may need to make some changes to your diet. My free nutrition plan can help you do this in a step-by-step fashion. Remember, nothing beats pure water when it comes to serving your body's needs. If you really feel the urge for a carbonated beverage, try sparkling mineral water with a squirt of lime or lemon juice, or sweetened with stevia or Lo Han, both of which are safe natural sweeteners. Remember, if you struggle with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or extra weight, then you have insulin sensitivity issues and would likely benefit from avoiding ALL sweeteners.
Sweetened beverages, whether it's sweetened with sugar, HFCS, naturally occurring fructose, or artificial sweeteners like aspartame, are among the worst culprits in the fight against obesity and related health problems, including diabetes and heart and liver disease, just to name a few. Ditching ALL of these types of beverages can go a long way toward reducing your risk for chronic health problems and weight gain, not to mention your exposure to potentially cancer-causing additives like caramel coloring.