It’s the most common coloring in foods and drinks—and it can contain a potential carcinogen. Here’s what Consumer Reports found when it tested soft drinks that have caramel color.
Caramel color, added to many soft drinks and some foods to turn them brown, may sound harmless, even appetizing. But in no way does it resemble real caramel. Some types of this artificial coloring contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI). Under California’s Proposition 65 law, any food or beverage sold in the state that exposes consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI per day is supposed to carry a health-warning label. In recent Consumer Reports’ tests, each of the 12-ounce samples of Pepsi One and Malta Goya had more than 29 micrograms per can or bottle. While we cannot say that this violates California's Prop 65, we believe that these levels are too high, and we have asked the California Attorney General to investigate.
Caramel color is the single most used food coloring in the world, according to a 2013 report from market research firms Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research. “There’s no reason why consumers should be exposed to an avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food brown,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D. toxicologist and executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety & Sustainability Center. “Manufacturers have lower 4-MeI alternatives available to them. Ideally there would be no 4-MeI in food.”
In 2007, a federal
government study concluded that 4-MeI caused cancer in mice and the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined the chemical to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2011. There’s no federal limit for levels of 4-MeI in foods and beverages, but as of January 7, 2012 California requires manufacturers to label a product sold in the state with a cancer warning if it exposes consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI per day. In this case, the exposure comes from consumption.
The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment used 29 micrograms as the cut off point because that’s the level they determined poses a one in 100,000 risk of cancer—that is, no more than one excess cancer case per 100,000 people who are exposed to that amount daily for a lifetime.
Consumer Reports’ experts think even that risk is too high. “It’s possible to get more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI in one can of some of the drinks we tested. And even if your choice of soft drink contains half that amount, many people have more than one can per day,” says Rangan. “Given that coloring is deliberately added to foods, the amount of 4-MeI in them should pose a negligible risk, which is defined as no more than one excess cancer case in 1 million people.” To meet that risk level, Consumer Reports’ experts say a soft drink would need to contain about 3 micrograms or less per can.