(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There’s caramel, and then there’s caramel color. It turns out the two don’t have much to do with each other. This matters to you if you drink soda.

Caramel color is the additive in many soft drinks and some foods that turns them brown. Some types of caramel color contain a chemical called 4-methylimidazole or 4-Mel, and 4-Mel is potentially carcinogenic. In 2011, the state of California added 4-mel to the so-called Prop. 65 list — a list of chemicals known by the state to cause cancer.

Consumer Reports published an analysis of various brands of soda on Thursday. They found that two brands exceeded a level of 29 micrograms per can or bottle: Pepsi One and Malta Goya. Consumer Reports cites state data showing daily consumption above that amount would cause one excess case of cancer in every 100,000 people.

“There’s no reason why consumers should be exposed to an avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food brown,” said Urvashi Rangan, PhD in the Consumer Reports story. He’s a toxicologist and executive director of the magazine’s Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “Manufacturers have lower 4-Mel alternatives available to them. Ideally there would be no 4-Mel in food.”

Consumer Reports conducted two rounds of testing of the sodas during 2013. Both times, samples of Pepsi One and Malta Goya exceeded 29 micrograms per can or bottle. But neither product had a cancer-risk warning label, as required by Prop. 65.

Consumer Reports contacted both Pepsi and Malta Goya. Only Pepsi responded. From Consumer Reports:

After we informed PepsiCo of our test results, the company issued a statement that said that Proposition 65 is based on per day exposure and not exposure per can. It also cited government consumption data that shows that the average amount of diet soda consumed by people who drink it is 100 milliliters per day, or less than a third of a 12-ounce can. For that reason, they believe that Pepsi One does not require cancer-risk warning labels—even if the amount of 4-MeI in a single can exceeds 29 micrograms.

Consumer Reports says there is analysis of government data that shows higher levels of daily consumption of soft drinks generally. “No matter how much consumers drink they don’t expect their beverages to have a potential carcinogen in them. And we don’t think 4-MeI should be in foods at all. Our tests of Coke samples show that it is possible to get to much lower levels,” says Rangan.

Consumer Reports says that because of its results, Consumers Union, the policy wing of Consumer Reports, is contacting the California Attorney General’s office and is also petitioning the Food and Drug Administration “to set a federal standard for 4-Mel and to require manufacturers to list the type of caramel color they use on the products’ ingredient lists.” While there are four types of caramel coloring, only two of them contain 4-Mel.

Consumer Reports also found that three brands — Coke, Diet Coke, and Coke Zero — had less than 5 micrograms per can in its tests, which, the report noted, its “experts believe is more acceptable.” Consumer Reports said it used Sprite as a control. It’s a clear soda and showed no significant levels of 4-Mel, the group found.

Another Health Problem with (Many) Sodas: Caramel Color 24 January,2014Lisa Aliferis

  • Lawrence Morgan

    Does Whole Foods use 4-Mel in their own 365 labels, as well as in Stevia soda (by Blue Sky) and other diet sodas? All the diet sodas I saw when I went to the Haight Street store had caramel coloring in it. I had a good conversation with the Haight Street store when I called in the morning, but when I went by in the afternoon the person at the desk was dismissive of my concern. I said that I wanted a reply from the person from Regional Management, but he didn’t seem concerned. I think Whole Foods should be very concerned about all the products that they sell! Has anyone else gone to Whole Foods or trader joes and seen a similar thing?


Lisa Aliferis

Lisa Aliferis is the founding editor of KQED’s State of Health blog. Since 2011, she’s been writing and editing stories for the site. Before taking up blogging, she toiled for many years (more than we can count) producing health stories for television, including Dateline NBC and San Francisco’s CBS affiliate, KPIX-TV. She also wrote up a handy guide to the Affordable Care Act, especially for Californians. Her work has been honored for many awards. Most recently she was a finalist for “Best Topical Reporting” from the Online News Association. You can follow her on Twitter: @laliferis

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