A can of Coca-Cola, covered with condensation.
Coca-Cola has begun to use a different kind of caramel color to avoid a cancer label. (Photo Credit: Public Domain/Cane cane/Wikipedia)

California has proven it’s ahead of the curve when it comes to many issues, including public health. As NPR reports, the Golden State may have done it again by banning the chemical compound 4-methylimidazole as a potential carcinogen. The caramel color agent is commonly used by the soda industry.

4-MI or 4-MEI and cancer

That distinctive brown color found in sodas like Coca-Cola and Pepsi is the product of the caramel color that contains levels of 4-MI (alternatively, 4-MEI). The State of California has decided that based upon tests with lab rats, the amount of 4-MI present in the caramel color merits the inclusion of a cancer warning on every can of soda sold in the state.

Last year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest reportedly petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban all 4-methylimidazole caramel color agents. After samples of 4-MI were recently found again in Coke and Pepsi, the CSPI repeated its request to the FDA.

‘Outrageous scare tactics’

This is something the soft drink industry is not prepared to take lying down.

“This is nothing more than CSPI scare tactics, and their claims are outrageous,” said the American Beverage Association in a written media statement. “The science simply does not show that 4-MEI foods or beverages is a threat to human health.”

The FDA concurs

FDA spokesman Douglas Karas responded to the most recent CSPI petition with a media statement that acknowledged that California’s decision seems hasty.

“It is important to understand that 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 Karas in his reply to critics of the use of 4-MEI.

Giving in

California law is not dependent upon the position of the beverage industry or the FDA. As such, Coca-Cola has already decided that it will meet the requirements of the state’s law and switch to a caramel color that uses a much smaller amount of 4-MI. If it didn’t do that, Coca-Cola would be forced to print a cancer warning label on all its cans and bottles, which would create a public relations nightmare that would undoubtedly cut into sales.

Various reports indicate that Coca-Cola has already begun the process of changing the caramel color formula it uses.

“The company did make the decision to ask its caramel suppliers to make the necessary manufacturing process modifications to meet the requirement of the State of California,” said Coca-Cola spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante via email.

Not admitting fault

Ciarlante went on in the same email to the press corps to emphasize that the caramel color in all Coca-Cola products is safe, citing the fact that no regulatory agency outside California has come to a similar conclusion on 4-MI as a human carcinogen – yet.

“The fact is that the body of science about 4-MEI in foods or beverages does not support the erroneous allegations that CSPI would like the public to believe,” she writes.

‘Safe and harmless’

Ted Nixon, CEO of caramel color supplier D.D. Williamson, did not hesitate to extol the perceived safety of his product.

“Caramel color is now — and has always been — safe and harmless,” he said in a statement. “We did have to change these various inputs of temperature, pressure and the various ingredients we’re using in order to change [4-MI concentrations].”

Is caramel color cancer causing?

Sources

Democratic Underground

Huffington Post

NPR.org

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