How dangerous is caramel ‘contaminant’ in soda?

Audio: Is 4-methylimidazole in soda 'natural'?

Kristi King | November 15, 2014 12:05 am

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WASHINGTON– A safety and nutrition watchdog is glad the Food and Drug Administration is looking into a soda coloring that Consumer Reports said this week might contain a dangerous coloring agent.

Though the FDA says there is no reason to believe the coloring added to sodas like Pepsi are unsafe, it is looking into new data about the levels of 4- methylimidazole – an impurity determined by Consumer Reports to be found in 12 brands of soda.

The agency says it has already been studying the use of caramel coloring for years. The new data, “will help the agency determine what, if any, regulatory action needs to be taken,” said FDA spokeswoman Juli Putnam.

According to reports, there are currently no federal limits on the amount of 4- methylimidazole in food and drink. Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science and the Public Interest, tells WTOP that 4-methylimidazole is created when sugar is heated under high pressure in the presence of ammonia.

Related Story:FDA takes another look at caramel coloring in soda

He said his group asked the FDA three years ago to look into the levels of the contaminant in soda and food products, but, “the FDA did nothing – the public watchdog ain’t watching.”

The Consumer Reports study urges the FDA set a maximum level of the substance when it is artificially added to foods or soda, to require labeling when it is added, and to bar products from carrying the “natural” label if they contain caramel colors.

“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,” said Consumer Reports’ Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and lead investigator on the study.

A spokeswoman from Pepsi said the Consumer Reports findings were factually inaccurate, and that all Pepsi products with 4-methylimidazole are set at levels below the acceptable threshold set by the State of California.

Though studies have not been conclusive about whether 4-methylimidazole is a carcinogen, California includes it on the state list of carcinogens and a state law mandates a cancer warning label on products that have a certain level of the substance. In reaction to that law, Coke, Pepsi and other soft drink makers have directed their caramel-color suppliers to reduce the levels of 4-methylimidazole.

Jacobson said he was heartened by the attention Consumer Reports has brought to the issue. “Hopefully this new Consumer Union test will get the FDA to pressure the whole soda industry – the big companies, the little companies — to get rid of this containment once and for all.”

The drinks tested were Sprite, Diet Coke, Coca-Cola, Coke Zero, Dr Pepper, Dr. Snap, Brisk Iced Tea, A&W Root Beer, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Pepsi One and Goya Malta. Consumer Reports said there was no significant level found in Sprite, and consistently low levels were found in Coke products.

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