New research: Beware of possible carcinogen in coloring in colas, other sodas, foods

Researchers analyze soft drink consumption data to determine people's exposure to the potentially carcinogenic byproduct.

February 19, 2015 16:58
3 minute read.

Soda. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)

A byproduct of caramel, the food-color component in cola and other dark soft drinks as well as ice creams and some other foods,  is potentially carcinogenic (cause of cancer) in humans, according to new research reported Thursday by researchers at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University.

Regular consumption of colas has long been known to be bad for general and dental health, due to the large amount of sugar and the acid in both sugared and diet versions.

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Public health researchers at the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health published their study online in prestigious journal PLoS One. “Soft drink consumers are being exposed to an avoidable and unnecessary cancer risk from an ingredient that is being added to these beverages simply for esthetic purposes,” said Prof. Keeve Nachman, a senior author of the study and director of the food production and public health program at the university’s Center for a Livable Future (CLF), who teaches at the school.

Asked by The Jerusalem Post, which sent the Health Ministry the news,  to, its ministry public health officials in Jerusalem said: “Maximum safe levels for food supplements that are set scientifically are accepted by committees of experts in Israel and abroad. The top levels are set down by regulations here and are in accordance with those in Europe, the US and international standards. To the best of our knowledge, there has been no change in international standards as a result of the publication of the research. The ministry will watch international decisions.”

He and his team analyzed soft drink consumption data to determine people's exposure to the potentially carcinogenic byproduct, 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI),  of some types of caramel color.

Caramel color is a widely consumed, according to the authors, who stated that “between 44 percent and 58% over the age of six typically have at least one can of cola or other dark soft drink daily -- and possibly more -- potentially exposing them a carcinogen. Building on an analysis of 4-MEI concentrations in 11 different soft drinks first published by the non-profit magazine Consumer Reports last year, researchers led by a team at the Johns Hopkins estimated exposure to 4-MEI from caramel-colored soft drinks and modeled the potential cancer burden related to routine soft drink consumption levels in the US.

As it is only a coloring, they said, “this unnecessary exposure poses a threat to public health and raises questions about the continued use of caramel in soda.” While the 2014 study of the 110 samples of soda brands was not large enough to recommend one brand over another or draw conclusions about specific brands, results indicated that levels of 4-MEI could vary substantially across samples, even for the same type of beverage.

“For example, for diet colas, certain samples had higher or more variable levels of the compound, while other samples had very low concentrations,” says Tyler Smith, lead author of the study and a program officer with the CLF.

While there's currently no federal limit for 4-MEI in food or beverages, Consumer Reports petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration to set limits for the potential carcinogen last year. It also shared the findings with the California attorney-general's office, which enforces the state-s Proposition 65 law aimed at reducing consumers' exposure to toxic chemicals. Under this state law, any food or beverage sold in the state that exposes consumers to more than a specific amount of 4-MEI per day requires a health-warning label.

“This new analysis underscores our belief that people consume significant amounts of soda that unnecessarily elevate their risk of cancer over the course of a lifetime,” added Dr. Urvashi Rangan, executive director for Consumer Reports' Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “We believe beverage makers and the government should take the steps needed to protect public health. California has already taken an important step by setting a threshold for prompting Proposition 65 labeling based on daily 4-MEI exposure from a food or beverage, such as a soda. This study sought to answer a critical question: How much soda do American consumers drink on average?”

Intervention by the FDA,, such as determining maximum levels for 4-MEI in beverages, could be a valuable approach to reducing excess cancer risk attributable to 4-MEI exposure in the U.S. population,” the researchers concluded.

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