Coca-Cola Challenged by New Health Claims (Updated)

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As Coca-Cola Canada releases a feel-good promo today about how it’s delivering goodness (and its multitude of beverage brands) across the country, Interbrand’s reigning best global brand is facing yet another challenge at home.

In addition to dismissing the latest claim that its secret formula has been found, it’s battling health claims that hit at the heart of its business. Following a report from medical researchers at the University of Miami that links consumption of diet soda drinks to increased risk of stroke, The Center for Science in the Public Interest is adding to the health scare.

The CSPI homepage today appropriates Coke’s branding to promote its new claims that the caramel coloring used in Coca-Cola and Pepsi cola-based beverages release a toxin that has been linked to cancer.[more]

Soft drinks have been under fire for years, with sugar levels blamed for adult obesity and diabetes, childhood health issues, dental woes and other maladies.

Now, the CSPI is honing in on the artificial coloring that gives them their brown appearance (and has nothing to do with caramel other than by name).

The organization is petitioning the FDA to ban the substance by claiming, in part, that “Chemical reactions result in the formation of 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazole, which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats.”

The CSPI press release also mentions proposed legislation in California to add cancer warning labels to Coke, Pepsi and other soft drinks containing the substance:

In a little-noticed regulatory proceeding in California, state health officials have added 4 MI to the state’s list of “chemicals known to the state to cause cancer.” Under that state’s Proposition 65, foods or other products containing more than certain levels of cancer-causing chemicals must carry warning labels. For 4-MI, that level is 16 micrograms per person per day from an individual product. Popular brands of cola contain about 200 micrograms of 4-MI per 20-ounce bottle—and many people, especially teenaged boys, consume more than that each day. If California’s regulation is finalized, Coke, Pepsi, and other soft drinks would be required to bear a cancer warning label.

Coca-Cola fired back in a statement to ABC News that “CSPI’s statement irresponsibly insinuates that the caramel used in our beverages is unsafe and maliciously raises cancer concerns among consumers. This does a disservice to the very public for which CSPI purports to serve. In fact studies show that the caramel we use does not cause cancer.”

D.D. Williamson & Co. Inc., which manufactures caramel color for the beverage industry and others, also disputed the CSPI report.

“There’s no evidence at all that caramel coloring causes cancer,” Ted Nixon, CEO of the Louisville, Kentucky-based company, commented to the Louisville Courier-Journal. The call to ban it, he added, “is based on inaccurate science, and it’s a shame.…There is no sound science here. The FDA will act on sound science.”

The American Beverage Association, the lobbying group whose members include Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, further dismissed the CSPI claims, concluding: “The bottom line is that this petition to the FDA by a group of activists is not based on sound science and is unnecessarily raising the fears of consumers.”

The executive director of CSPI, meanwhile, admitted to TIME.com’s Healthland blogger Bryan Walsh “that even if 2-MEI and 4-MEI slightly increase the chance of cancers, the far greater risk posed by soda is for obesity — which is itself connected to some cancers. ‘The contaminants pose a small risk compared to all that sugar,’ (Michael) Jacobson says.”

The FDA is taking the report seriously, Walsh adds. A spokesman told him that the agency “is currently assessing potential consumer exposure to 4-MEI and 2-MEI from consumption of the ingredient caramel to determine if any appreciable risk exists from exposure to these impurities. FDA’s assessment will dictate what, if any, regulatory action needs to be taken. This assessment will be used to help respond to any petition FDA receives regarding 4-MEI and 2-MEI in caramel.”

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