Yesterday, the folks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest sent a petition to the Food & Drug Administration, demanding that the “caramel coloring” commonly used in sodas like Coke and Pepsi be banned because they claim it contains a pair of carcinogenic chemicals.
To be more precise, CSPI is asking the government to ban two specific forms of caramel coloring: Caramel III, used in some beers, soy sauce and other foods; and Caramel IV, used in dark soft drinks.
In contrast to the caramel one might make at home by melting sugar in a saucepan, the artificial brown coloring in colas and some other products is made by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites under high pressure and temperatures. Chemical reactions result in the formation of 2-methylimidazole [2-MI] and 4 methylimidazole [4-MI], which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats.
The National Toxicology Program, the division of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that conducted the animal studies, said that there is “clear evidence” that both 2-MI and 4-MI are animal carcinogens. Chemicals that cause cancer in animals are considered to pose cancer threats to humans. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found significant levels of 4-MI in five brands of cola.
“Carcinogenic colorings have no place in the food supply, especially considering that their only function is a cosmetic one,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The FDA should act quickly to revoke its approval of caramel colorings made with ammonia.”
Also at issue for CSPI is the phrase “caramel coloring” itself, which the group says is “misleading when used to describe colorings made with ammonia or sulfite.”
“Most people would interpret ‘caramel coloring’ to mean ‘colored with caramel,’ but this particular ingredient has little in common with ordinary caramel or caramel candy,” Jacobson said. “It’s a concentrated dark brown mixture of chemicals that simply does not occur in nature. Regular caramel isn’t healthful, but at least it is not tainted with carcinogens.”
They suggest using “ammonia process caramel” or “ammonia sulfite process caramel” instead.
CSPI does admit that “the ten teaspoons of obesity-causing sugars in a non-diet can of soda presents a greater health risk than the ammonia sulfite process caramel,” but believes the levels of 4-MI found in colas could be causing thousands of cases of cancer.