According to Consumer Reports, a caramel-coloring chemical that has been linked to cancer has been found to be present at levels believed to be dangerous to human health in some soft drinks. The chemical, known as 4-methylimidazole, or 4MeI, is a common ingredient in many U.S. soft drinks and other products, appearing on ingredient labels as “caramel coloring.”
According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer, the chemical is a possible carcinogen. In the state of California, food and drink manufacturers are already limited to producing products which will result in less than 29 micrograms of exposure “for the average consumer per day.” This level is thought to reduce the risk of developing cancer from exposure to the chemical to a rate of 1 in every 100,000 consumers. California law dictates that products containing amounts of 4-MeI in excess of that amount be labeled with the following warning: “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer.”
The recent research conducted for Consumer Reports involved the purchase of a dozen varieties of soft drinks that were then analyzed in a lab. Consumer Reports found that both the products Pepsi One and Malta Goya had amounts of 4-MeI in excess of the amounts permitted without a warning label under California law. The additional brands that were tested were found to be in compliance with the amounts of the chemical permitted in California.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently regulate the levels of 4-MeI found in foods, soft drinks or other beverages across the U.S. The agency is reportedly conducting additional research on the chemical to determine if it should take action, but according to a spokeswoman, “has no reason to believe that 4-MeI poses a health risk to consumers” at this time. As a result of this lack of regulation, it is possible that levels of the chemical linked to cancer may exist at even more dangerous levels in states outside of California that do not regulate 4-MeI. In fact, a Pepsi One purchased by Consumer Reports researchers in New York in December was found to contain more than four times the amount of the potential carcinogen than the same beverage purchased at around the same time in California.
Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist working on the Consumer Reports study, says that the risk is particularly concerning because of the volume of consumption of soft drinks by Americans and the potential for a wide variation in amounts of 4-MeI found in beverages across the country. He calls the risk “unnecessary” as the chemical is merely included in food and drink to enhance its color. He and Consumer Reports suggest that widespread labeling changes be made to products containing 4-MeI as a coloring agent in order to allow consumers to “make informed choices.”
PepsiCo has reportedly responded to the Consumer Reports research by saying that its data on the average amount of diet soda consumed by the average person each day indicates that “All of Pepsi’s products are below the threshold set in California and all are in full compliance with the law.”
As the FDA looks into the issue and the public responds to the Consumer Reports information, it seems likely that 4-MeI, a chemical believed to be linked to cancer, and its existence as a popular ingredient in American foods and soft drinks will be scrutinized more closely.
By Michele Wessel