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Are you drinking cancer? FDA to look at phony caramel coloring in sodas

Known as "caramel coloring" but actually a chemical compound that has nothing to do with the butter-and-sugar concoction that is actual caramel, a popular additive to sodas and other beverages contains 4-methylimidazole (also known as 4-MEI), a compound that causes cancer in mice. Alerted by Consumer Reports to the fact that many soft drinks contain higher per-serving levels of 4-MEI than the amount believed by the state of California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to cause cancer (if ingested at those levels over a lifetime of consumption), the FDA has decided to take another look at 4-MEI in products meant for human consumption.

Diet Pepsi contains 182.7 micrograms per serving of toxic 4-MEI, according to tests performed in New York by Consumer Reports
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The federal government currently has no limit for the maximum amount of 4-MEI in food; however, this is at least partially based on the assumption that an average American (who drinks 1.3 cans of soda per day) ingests less than the amount of 4-MEI known to cause harm. In other words, if no one drinks enough 4-MEI to get cancer, the FDA doesn't see the point in telling the public what the cancer-causing level is -- or even to require processed food manufacturers to note the presence of the chemical on its labels. Indeed, "caramel color" is the catch-all term employed by beverage manufacturers to encompass all types of chemical compounds used to give a brownish hue to processed foods, including Class III and Class IV caramel coloring, which contain 4-MEI as an impurity left over from the manufacturing process.

4-MEI is also used in the manufacture of cleaning and agricultural chemicals, so it is likely to surprise consumers that it is in their beverages. This is why the state of California requires it to be named on food labels if it is present in "significant amounts." It's also why the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been trying for years to get 4-MEI banned. "Carcinogenic substances have no place in the food supply, especially considering that their only function is a cosmetic one," CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said in 2001.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Beverage Association, the lobbying groups representing processed food manufacturers and vendors, have both stated that they care about their consumers and would never want them eating anything that would make them sick. "Ensuring the safety of our products [...] is the single most important goal of our industry," the GMA said back in 2011. "First and foremost, consumers can rest assured that our industry's beverages are safe," the ABA said just a few days ago. However, these assurances bear a strong resemblance to other assertions of safety made by manufacturers of products later proved to be toxic or otherwise harmful, e.g., the statements of tobacco executives that nicotine is not addictive or the opposition of tobacco companies to the Surgeon General's warning: "We oppose it because we believe the Commission's warning requirement is unwise, unwarranted, and is not a fair factual statement of the present state of scientific knowledge."

Regardless of the decision the FDA may reach regarding 4-MEI and other chemicals contained in artificial caramel colorings, individual consumers can choose to avoid products linked to cancer by choosing whole foods instead of processed ones, or all-natural products instead of chemically-altered ones. In Europe, where stronger laws exist to protect consumers from chemically-tainted foods by requiring warning labels, American companies sell processed foods with safer formulations, like candies with all-natural colorings. Pressure from consumers can be as powerful as pressure from the FDA when it comes to encouraging companies to change their formulations to less harmful ones.