Yesterday, the U.S. consumer watchdog The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a report revealing people who regularly drink sodas containing high levels of the chemical 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MI—used to give pop drinks their caramel coloring—are potentially at increased risk of developing cancer, reported CBS News.
CSPI found "unsafe" levels of the ingredient 4-MI—linked to cancer in animals—in Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc's Dr. Pepper, and Whole Foods' 365 Cola, reported Reuters. The amount of this specific caramel coloring found in the Coke and Pepsi products tested is causing about 15,000 cancers in the U.S. population, the public-interest group estimated.
But today, the American Beverage Association defended 4-MI as safe and accused the group of instilling unnecessary fear in consumers. "This is nothing more than CSPI scare tactics," the ABA said in a statement. "In fact, findings of regulatory agencies worldwide ... consider caramel coloring safe for use in foods and beverages."
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also dispelled concerns over the group's report, saying these sodas pose no realistic cancerous health risks, reported Reuters.
"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.
Again this year, CSPI asked the FDA to ban all coloring agents including 4-MI. "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 Jacobson. "If companies can make brown food coloring that is carcinogen-free, the industry should use that."
In response, Coca-Cola released a statement on March 15 that it will not alter its Secret Formula. "The caramel color in all of our products has been, is and always will be safe, and The Coca-Cola Company is not changing the world-famous formula for our Coca-Cola beverages," a Coca-Cola press release states.
That said, the company has requested its caramel manufacturers reduce the amount of "4-MEI" in the caramel, which will have "no effect on the formula or on the great-tasting, high-quality products that consumers expect from us," Coca-Cola states.
The FDA limits 4-MI in sodas to 250 parts per million (ppm). The highest levels CSPI found in a soda can were about 0.4 ppm, according to Reuters calculations.
Still, all cans containing the potentially harmful ingredient were removed from shelves in the Washington, D.C. area. Some had 4-MI levels approaching 140 micrograms per 12-ounce can, CSPI said.
While consuming the ingredient is potentially harmful, the watchdog group said the high-fructose corn syrup found in sodas is even more dangerous with the potential to both cause and aggravate diabetes.