Coca-Cola and Pepsi have altered the way the caramel colour so distinctive of their drinks is produced, but are only changing the process in America – should we be worried in the UK?
There’s nothing like an ice-cold glass of Coca-Cola or Pepsi to quench your thirst on a hot summer’s day, but what if your favourite caramel-coloured carbonated drink had the potential to cause cancer?
The state of California has added the chemical 4-methylindazole (4-MEI) – used to give coke its distinctive caramel colouring – to its official list of ingredients that may cause cancer, following a study in rats and mice.
Under the state’s law, drinks manufacturers, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, would have had to put cancer warning labels on bottles and cans to alert consumers to the possible risk, potentially affecting their sales. So to avoid this, Coca-Cola – who along with PepsiCo account for nearly 90% of the US fizzy drinks market – has changed the way the caramel colour is manufactured so that it contains less 4-MEI. Although the move is to appease the California consumer, Coca-Cola is changing the caramel ingredient in all coke across America to make the manufacturing process more efficient.
“The caramel colour in all of our products had been, is and always will be safe, and the Coca-Cola Company is not changing the world-famous formula for our Coca-Cola beverages,” said a Coca-Cola spokesperson.
“We have asked our caramel manufacturers to modify their production process to reduce the amount of 4-MEI in the caramel. But that will have no effect on the formula or on the great-tasting, high-quality products that consucmers expect from us.”
But nothing will change across the pond – we will still get the same old-style Coca-Cola and Pepsi we know and love. But why – if the chemical is carcinogenic, shouldn’t it be added to a list of banned ingredients in the rest of America and over here too? Are our regulations not as tight as those in California?
Coca-Cola is only changing their process because they feel they have to in order to comply with the new Californian law – and to avoid a drop in sales.
Diana Garza-Ciarlante, a spokeswoman for the company, said: “While we believe that there is no public health risk that justifies any such change, we did ask our caramel suppliers to take this step so that our products would not be subject to the requirement of a scientifically unfounded warning.”
According to the American Beverage Association, the new standard is based on one study carried out by the National Toxicology Program in 2007, which linked 4-MEI to cancer and mice in rats. The findings are strongly disputed, and there is no evidence to suggest that the chemical causes cancer in humans. The European Food Safety Authority – like most other regulators – do not believe the chemical poses any health risks.
“The European Food Safety Authority recently looked at 4-methylimidazole and concluded it does not pose a health risk to humans,” said a spokesman for the Food Standards Agency. “Based on the available evidence, the presence of 4-methylimisdazole in colorants is not a food safety concern.”
Officials point out that you would need to drink 1,000 cans a day to get the same dose of the chemical that was linked to tumours in mice. And levels of 4-MEI are much lower – around 100µg per 12oz serving – than the EU legal unit of 250mg/kg in the caramel colouring itself.
Although it is found in some photographic, cleaning and agricultural chemicals, dyes and pharmaceuticals, 4-MEI is formed naturally during the heating and browning process, and so is found in cooked and roasted food, as well as caramel colouring.
So is 4-MEI really that dangerous or have the Californian authorities jumped the gun –? I would suggest that, since their decision to place the chemical on the list of potential carcinogens is based on one lone study, they may have jumped the gun a little bit. More research should have been performed before authorities took the decision to add 4-MEI to the list of carcinogenic compounds.