When the news came out of the state of California a year ago that the stuff that makes your cola beverage brown has been linked to cancer, there were a number of consumers that likely didn’t put their change into the vending machine that day.
The amount of that compound (4-methylimidazole, or 4-MEI) in soda would cause the state to need to put warning labels on all of its cans, NPR reports. This, in turn, led to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to lobby the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to “ban ammonia-sulfite caramel color,” according to NPR. Coke Clear, anyone?
While the cola companies and caramel manufacturers are obviously stating that there is no validity to these claims, the FDA is also chiming in that this could be much ado about not much. In any event, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which account for almost 90% of the U.S. soda market, have tweaked their formulas in compliance with the Californian law — averting the need to add a cancer warning label.
The FDA "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," FDA spokesman Douglas Karas said in a statement reported by NPR. (If you're consuming that much soda in a day, you've got other issues to worry about.)
Still, even if soda manufacturers think the claims are bogus, Coca-Cola is concerned enough — and wants its cans in California to go warning-free enough — to “switch to a new, low 4-MEI formulation of caramel coloring,” NPR reports. PepsiCo has also altered its formula to avoid having to add a cancer warning label. (See their official statements below.)
CSPI issued a press release this week reiterating its opposition to 4-MEI in cola beverages produced by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.
Coca-Cola says it has already instituted the change. "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," Diana Garza Ciarlante, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman, wrote in an email to NPR.
According to the CSPI press release, "Pepsi told CSPI that it has switched to a coloring in California that contains much less 4-MEI and plans to do the same in the rest of the country."
CSPI isn't happy to rest its case there, adding:
“When most people see ‘caramel coloring’ on food labels, they likely interpret that quite literally and assume the ingredient is similar to what you might get by gently melting sugar in a saucepan,” Jacobson said. “The reality is quite different. Colorings made with the ammonia or ammonia-sulfite process contain carcinogens and don’t belong in the food supply. In any event, they shouldn’t be obscured by such an innocuous-sounding name as ‘caramel coloring.’”
As troubling as the new test results are, CSPI says soda drinkers should be much more concerned about the high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars used in soft drinks. Soda drinkers are much more likely than non-soda drinkers to develop weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems."
Should make for a lively conversation at the CSPI's first Sugary Drinks Summit, taking place in Washington, D.C., in June.
Update: Coca-Cola and PepsiCo provided us with the following official statements —
"The safety of our products is a primary concern at PepsiCo. Our beverages, and the ingredients that go into them, are and always will be safe for consumption. This includes the caramel coloring that we use in some of our products. When California chose to add 4-MEI to its Prop 65 list, we asked our caramel suppliers to modify their manufacturing processes, which they have done. Over time they will expand this process for the rest of the country. Consumers will notice no difference in our products and have no reason at all for any health concerns. There is no scientific evidence that 4-MEI in foods and beverages is a threat to human health. The FDA and other regulatory agencies, including the European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada, consider caramel coloring safe for use in foods and beverages."
Unlike CSPI, The Coca-Cola Company deals in hard facts. Fact: 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. The 4-MEI levels in our products pose no health or safety risks. Outside of California, no regulatory agency concerned with protecting the public's health has stated that 4-MEI is a human carcinogen. The caramel color in all of our ingredients has been, is and always will be safe. That is a fact. Here are additional facts:
· In 2009, Coca-Cola was the first company in the beverage industry to make front-of-pack energy labeling a global commitment for nearly all of our products and to have the majority of the global rollout complete by 2012.
· In 2010, Coca-Cola introduced the 7.5-ounce mini can. Today, Coca-Cola can be enjoyed in a 90-calorie can. So can Sprite, Fanta, Coke Zero and Diet Coke.
· In 2006, Coca-Cola and several other beverage companies, helped institute national school beverage guidelines in the U.S. that effectively accelerated the shift from full-calorie soft drinks to no- and low-calorie options. Today, nearly 98 percent of schools in the United States are in compliance with these voluntary guidelines. Since 2006, the industry has reduced the amount of beverage calories delivered to schools by 88 percent.
· Coca-Cola joined with the American Beverage Association and our industry partners to launch the Clear on Calories initiative and voluntarily committed to putting the information on the front of all our packages, vending machines and fountain machines.