Bookmark and Share February 19, 2011 - Dave Mulder

Caramel color and cancer

In a press release earlier this week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) launched an attack on caramel coloring, asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban its use. Caramel color, as you may recall from a previous article on this site, is a naturally-sourced coloring agent used in foodstuff and beverages.

CSPI’s complaint focuses on the type of caramel coloring used in soft drinks like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, known as caramel color IV. Caramel coloring is traditionally produced by placing sugar over high heat. Caramel color IV adds ammonia and sulfites to the production process. According to CSPI, these extra ingredients result in harmful byproducts.

Chemical reactions result in the formation of 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazole, which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats.

The claim that caramel color IV contains some amount of 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole is not being refuted. However, beverage industry lobbyists have responded by saying that the risk to humans is minimal.

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.

For the moment, literature does not provide much support for CSPI’s request. Perhaps most telling, the same research group CSPI cites in its complaint does not list 4-MEI among chemicals believed to be human carcinogens; however, this status could certainly change.

While I admire CSPI’s initiative to make people aware of a potential health threat, public reaction has been to take the claim and run with it. A search on for ‘caramel color’ reveals that many people are assuming that CSPI’s press release is accurate. We won’t know for a while if there’s an impact on purchasing habits, but on a personal level, even I have abstained from purchasing Mexican Coca-Cola over the last few days (the kind made with real sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup) while reviewing the research.

At the end of the day, there are studies linking carcinogenic effects to practically everything we come in contact with. It’s hard to say, without further research, that CSPI’s claims about caramel color are invalid; but at the same time, it will also take additional study to show that CSPI is correct. At the very least, I hope that the fervor of caramel color will inspire someone to find out either way.

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