The Killer Disguised as "Caramel Coloring"

Soft drink manufacturers like Coca Cola and PepsiCo spend billions to entice you to buy their products. But what they don’t tell you in those slick, thirst-inducing ads is that sugary soft drinks have been linked to cancer.

So instead of opening “happiness,” as Coca Cola suggests in a recent slogan, you might actually be poisoning your body. That’s right… Coke and Pepsi might be killing you. Yet, the companies making the stuff still want you to drink their products.

Why are the soft drinks so toxic? It’s the caramel coloring that gives them their dark brown hue.

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is a division of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Researchers there ran two government studies. They found that the coloring caused cancer in lab mice and rats.

Now, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the use of the toxic brew. Or at least make sure you know about its dangers.

What’s so bad is that the coloring is just for looks. There’s no nutritional or preservative value. Coca Cola and Pepsi and other soft drink makers may be putting the public at risk for no good reason.

This is just the latest research linking soft drinks to cancer. Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently found a link between the high levels of sugar in soft drinks and pancreatic cancer. People who drank as few as two soft drinks a week faced almost double the risk of the deadly disease.

Michael F. Jacobson is CSPI’s executive director. He’s also a veteran of the healthy food movement. He has pushed for nutritional labels and other consumer issues in the past. Now, he wants the additives in Coke and Pepsi and other foods removed. Jacobson has the support of several experts in the cancer study field. They include two scientists with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Carcinogenic colorings have no place in the food supply, especially considering that their only function is a cosmetic one,” Jacobson said. “The FDA should act quickly to revoke its approval of caramel colorings made with ammonia.”

What’s really going on here? And why is the public just learning about this health risk? NHD went behind the scenes for answers.

What’s Wrong with Caramel?

First, let’s start with the term “caramel coloring.” It has little to do with the chewy candy we all grew up with. It’s just a syrupy tag the cola industry uses so you won’t be alarmed. It sounds like they have been misleading the public for profit and hoping no one would notice.

The coloring is actually a mix of sugars, ammonia, and, in some cases, sulfite. When heated at high temperatures, this combination turns into 2-methylimidazole (2-MEI) and 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) – proven cancer inducers.

Regulators divide caramel colorings into four categories. Caramel I and II are not made with ammonia. They are used in some alcoholic drinks and vegetable extracts. They are safer than Caramel III and IV, which contain 2-MEI and 4-MEI.

Carmel III is often used in baking, beer, soy sauce, gravy, and other products. Caramel IV is the one found in colas. It’s also considered the most toxic.

In the NTP studies, mice and rats were fed the additives. They were then observed over a two-year period. Researchers found that 4-MEI caused lung tumors. And 2-MEI was associated with liver and thyroid tumors.

Rats didn’t fare any better. They had higher rates of leukemia and thyroid tumors. Researchers also witnessed abnormal behaviors like hyperactivity, excitability, and difficulty walking in female rats.

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found 4-MEI in five brands of cola. The CSPI looked at the study data and found that a 12-ounce can contains between 108 and 130 micrograms of the toxic additive.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Congress approved an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. It requires that additives used to color food be “stringently assessed” by the FDA before release to the public.

How could Coke and Pepsi have been on the market so long without government intervention? Maybe we’ll get some answers soon.

Experts Weigh In

Some experts are already sounding the alarm. In California, health officials recently added 4-MEI to the state list of cancer-causing chemicals. That means products with significant amounts of the chemical may soon have to carry a cancer label.

A group of scientists recently sent a letter to the FDA supporting CPSI’s call for a national ban on the additives. The letter was signed by Dr. Kamal M. Abdo and Dr. Ronald Melnick, retired employees of the U.S. Health Department.

“The risky chemicals could be quickly and easily eliminated from the food supply,” the letter said. “We urge the FDA to revoke its approval of these caramel colorings to protect the public health.”

The Push Back

But instead of heeding the call, the cola industry came out swinging. Big time. The American Beverage Association issued a statement against the NTP study.

“There is no evidence that 4-MEI causes cancer in humans,” it said. “No health regulatory agency around the globe, including the Food and Drug Administration, has said that 4-MEI is a human carcinogen.”

The statement further stated, “This petition is nothing more than another attempt to scare consumers by an advocacy group long-dedicated to attacking the food and beverage industry.”

Coca Cola, in another release, defended its product. “4-MEI is found in trace amounts in a wide variety of foods and beverages, including Coca-Cola,” it said. “In fact, it forms normally in the ‘browning reaction’ while cooking, even in one’s own kitchen.”

It’s not the first time the industry has thrown a counter punch. The cancer news comes on the heels of another study presented at the 2011 International Stroke Conference. It found that people who consumed diet soda every day were significantly more likely to suffer from stroke, heart attack, and vascular death. Sugary drinks have also been associated with health risks like tooth decay and obesity.

And what did the ABA do? Deny the claims, of course. But there’s more information being released almost daily about why sodas are bad for you. The cola companies are skating on thin ice.

Meanwhile, the FDA says it’s studying the cancer issue. However, in a statement to one consumer organization, the agency also downplayed the findings. The FDA says a person would have to drink “well over a thousand cans of soda a day to reach the doses administered in the NTP studies.”

What to Do About It

So how do you know if your health is at risk? California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has set some guidelines. Products that expose consumers to more than 16 micrograms of 4-MEI per day are considered dangerous. That level could result in one cancer per 100,000 people, according to the OEHHA.

A 12-ounce can of Coke or Pepsi contains in excess of 100 micrograms. That’s six times the risk level. Some cola lovers drink much more than that in one day.

The back-and-forth between Big Cola and the consumer advocates is sure to continue. One thing is certain. Your health is what’s most important. It won’t hurt to cut back on soft drinks – at least while the jury is still out on the cancer issue.

There are plenty healthy alternatives out there. Right at the top of that list is water. It can quench your thirst without negative side effects. You might even lose a pound or two.

For now, stay tuned for more on this developing story. We’ll keep you posted on the latest.

To your best health,
Ian's signature
Ian Robinson,
Managing Editor,
NHD “Health Watch”

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Health Topic: Cancer


  1. Tanchew says:

    Isn’t it all carbohydrates after browning by high heat carcinogenic? There are no exception for sugars & fructose.

  2. Jenny says:

    Wow, after 3 years one comment a few months ago. This is crazy, shows you public and the media and Big Pharma want usall to get sick and die. Great article I will be forwarding this on to my diet coke drinkers, Aspertame is just as bad, google Aspertame and Donald Rumsfeld. Wow.

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