YONKERS, NY -- Recent tests of sodas and other soft drinks by Consumer Reports found varying levels of a potentially carcinogenic chemical in all of the samples that listed caramel color as an ingredient. The ingredient, called 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), is a byproduct of the manufacture of certain types of caramel color.
Twelve brands of sodas and soft drinks from five manufacturers, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Goya, were tested. Findings in the report, which is online at consumerreports.org, have been opposed to by a number of groups, including the FDA, the European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada.
"We are concerned about both the levels of 4-MeI we found in many of the soft drinks tested and the variations observed among brands, especially given the widespread consumption of these types of beverages," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. "There is no reason why consumers need to be exposed to this avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food and beverages brown."
Caramel color is used in certain food and beverages as a coloring agent. Some types of this artificial coloring contain 4-MeI, which has been recognized as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, according to Consumer Reports.
While there are no existing federal limits on the amount of caramel color allowed in food and beverages, products sold in California that would expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI in a day are supposed to carry a warning label under the state's Proposition 65 law.
Between April and September 2013, Consumer Reports tested 81 cans and bottles of various popular brands of soft drinks purchased in stores in California and the New York metropolitan region. Twenty-nine additional samples were purchased and tested in December.
In its tests, Consumer Reports found that 12-fl.oz. single servings of two products purchased multiple times during an eight-month period in the state of California -- Pepsi One and Malta Goya -- exceeded 29 micrograms per can or bottle.
Consumer Reports said that while this does not violate California's Prop 65, "we believe that these levels are too high, and we have asked the California Attorney General to investigate."
PepsiCo issued a statement to Consumer Reports claiming that Proposition 65 is based on per-day exposure and not exposure per can. It also cited government consumption data that show the average amount of diet soda consumed by people who drink it is 100 milliliters a day, or less than a third of a 12-fl.oz. can. For that reason, Pepsi said it believes that Pepsi One does not require cancer-risk warning labels -- even if the amount of 4-MeI in a single can exceeds 29 micrograms.
According to Consumer Reports, published analysis of government data shows higher levels of daily consumption of soft drinks. It also said it found samples of Coke with average levels of 4.3 micrograms or less per serving, which is much lower than California's threshold for labeling.
"While our study is not big enough to recommend one brand over another, our results underscore two key points: The first is that it is indeed feasible to get down to lower and almost negligible levels of 4-MeI. And the second is that federal standards are required to compel manufacturers to minimize the creation of this potential carcinogen," said Rangan.
Consumer Reports' tests also found that Coca-Cola products tested had the lowest levels of 4-MeI for products with caramel color listed on the label. And while Whole Foods' Dr. Snap has a "natural" label, its products contained 4-MeI, and all caramel colors are considered artificial.
Consumers Reports has filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asking the agency to set a standard for limiting the formation of 4-MeI in those caramel colors that contain it. The group is seeking labeling of specific caramel colors in the ingredient lists of food where it is added, since not all caramel color contains 4-MeI, but consumers people have no way of knowing. (Europe already requires this type of labeling.) It also wants the FDA to bar products from carrying the "natural" label if they contain caramel colors.
At this point, according to Consumer Reports, the best consumers (and laboratory mice) can do to avoid exposure to 4-MeI is to choose soft drinks and other foods that do not list "caramel color" or "artificial color" on their ingredient list.
"First and foremost, consumers can rest assured that our industry's beverages are safe," the American Beverage Association said in a statement. "Contrary to the conclusions of Consumer Reports, FDA has noted there is no reason at all for any health concerns, a position supported by regulatory agencies around the world. However, the companies that make caramel coloring for our members' soft drinks are now producing it to contain less 4-MeI, and nationwide use of this new caramel coloring is underway."