Organic Spa Blog

Cancer in Your Cola?

Remember former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failed attempt to restrict the availability of large-size high-calorie sodas in New York City? The outcry ranged from a defense of civil liberties to a discussion of individual rights and freedoms. Well, if the calories won’t get people to stop drinking soda, maybe the cancer risk will!

Consumer Reports partnered with John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future to test soft drinks and sodas and do a risk assessment. According to the recent test, just released by Consumer Reports, there were varying levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), a potentially-carcinogenic chemical byproduct of the production of certain types of caramel color, discovered in ALL samples of popular sodas that listed caramel color as an ingredient.

Caramel color is a colorant used in some foods and drinks, and should not be confused with real caramel, which does not pose a risk. The ingredient 4-Mel is considered a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Twelve brands of sodas and soft drinks were tested from five manufacturers—including Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Goya. The full findings are featured at

“We are concerned about both the levels of 4-MeI we found in many of the soft drinks tested and the variations observed among brands, especially given the widespread consumption of these types of beverages. There is no reason why consumers need to be exposed to this avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food and beverages brown,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and Executive Director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.

As of now, there are no existing federal limits on how much caramel color is allowed in food and beverages. In California, under Proposition 65, products that would expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI in one day are supposed to carry a warning label.

Consumer Reports found that 12-ounce single servings of two popular soft drinks exceeded 29 micrograms per can or bottle, and they have requested that the California Attorney General’s office undergo an investigation.

“While our study is not big enough to recommend one brand over another, our results underscore two key points: The first is that it is indeed feasible to get down to lower and almost negligible levels of 4-MeI. And the second is that federal standards are required to compel manufacturers to minimize the creation of this potential carcinogen,” said Rangan.

The Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports, is asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to:

• Set a standard for limiting the formation of 4-MeI in caramel colors that contain it (caramel III and IV).

• Require labeling of specific caramel colors in the ingredient lists of food where it is added, so that consumers will know when to avoid it if they so choose (as it stands now, not all caramel color contains 4-MeI, but consumers have no way of knowing). The EU already requires this type of labeling.

• Ban companies from labeling products as “natural” if they do, indeed, contain caramel colors. (Dr. Snap, a brand found at Whole Foods, was found to contain 4-Mel.)

Maybe former NYC Mayor Bloomberg wasn’t so far off base after all.

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