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Consumer Reports slams soda ingredient based on unproven cancer link

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An alarming article released today by Consumer Reports magazine criticizes soda companies for continuing to use a coloring additive that contains 4-methylimidazole, saying that the chemical can cause cancer and that common soda brands contain more of it than they disclose.

However, most studies have failed to show a link between the ingredient, commonly referred to as 4-MEI or 4-Mel, and cancer. The study Consumer Reports references, conducted by the U.S. government's National Toxicology Program in 2007, showed that rodents given large doses of 4-MEI were more likely to develop cancer.

The lowest dose that seemed to increase cancer risk was 1250 ppm daily in male mice, the equivalent of 160 mg per kg of body weight. For a 150-pound person (approximately 68 kg), that equates to 10,880 mg per kg of body weight. The soda which Consumer Reports found to have the highest concentration of 4-MEI contained 200 mcg or .2 mg per container.

This means that a person weighing 150 pounds would need to drink 54,400 of these sodas per day (10,880 divided by .2 mg per soda) to equal the amount of 4-MEI that seemed to increase cancer risk in male mice. The American Beverage Association released a statement in response to the Consumer Reports article, noting that there are no studies showing that 4-MEI causes cancer in humans.

Though the FDA does not consider the chemical harmful, it says it is "currently reviewing all available data on the safety of 4-MEI and is reassessing potential consumer exposure to 4-MEI." However, the FDA "is not recommending that consumers change their diets because of concerns about 4-MEI."

The agency describes 4-MEI as "a chemical compound that is not directly added to food; rather it is formed as a byproduct in some foods and beverages during the normal cooking process. For example, 4-MEI may form when coffee beans are roasted and when meats are roasted or grilled. 4-MEI also forms as a trace impurity during the manufacturing of certain types of caramel coloring ... that are used to color cola-type beverages and other foods."

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