Is Caramel Coloring in Your Soda Dangerous?

Certain caramel colorings might contain carcinogens.
Certain caramel colorings might contain carcinogens.
Consumer Reports

Coke and Pepsi are ingrained in the world's diet. From the United States to the deepest reaches of Kenya, one thing is for certain: Wherever you'll find civilization, you'll find someone selling these caramel-hued refreshments.

That caramel coloring, by the way, is so iconic that when Coke and Pepsi tried to make clear variations of their sodas in the 1990s, the short-lived experiment proved to be unpopular by the public, who wanted their colas a deep brown.

Until now, the caramel coloring in your soda was considered a harmless additive. After all, what's so bad about caramel (except the sugar in it), right?

Consumer Reports has just issued the results of an independent study that shows many caramel-colored beverages contain the chemical 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), a potential carcinogen. In fact, California requires that any food or beverage sold in the state that exposes consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MEI per day, contain a health-warning label.

What is 4-MEI, and how dangerous is it? According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), "4-MEI is a compound used to make certain pharmaceuticals, photographic chemicals, dyes and pigments, cleaning and agricultural chemicals, and rubber products" and is "formed during the production of certain caramel coloring agents used in many food and drink products."

The OEHHA states that "studies published in 2007 by the federal government's National Toxicology Program showed that long-term exposure to 4-MEI resulted in increases in lung cancer in male and female mice. These findings were the basis for the addition of 4-MEI to California's Proposition 65 list of carcinogens. Exposure to high concentrations of 4-MEI (such as concentrations that might occur in industrial settings) is reported to irritate the lungs or burn the eyes and skin."

Consumer Reports' study found potentially dangerous levels of 4-MEI in cans of Pepsi One and Malta Goya, although the Coke products they tested had very low incidents of the compound.

Though Consumer Reports stresses that its research was not all-encompassing and that its researchers sampled only sodas from California and New York, their findings were alarming enough for them to "petition the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set a federal standard for 4-MEI and in the meantime to require manufacturers to list the type of caramel color they use on their products' ingredient lists." Soda manufacturers are not required to list what kind of caramel coloring is used in their products.

Although the FDA website states the agency "has no reason to believe that there is any immediate or short-term danger presented by 4-MEI at the levels expected in food from the use of caramel coloring," it is also "reviewing all available data on the safety of 4-MEI and is reassessing potential consumer exposure to 4-MEI from the use of Class III and Class IV caramel coloring in food products. This safety analysis will help FDA determine what, if any, regulatory action needs to be taken. Such actions could include setting a limit on the amount of 4-MEI that can be present in caramel coloring."

Consumer Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports, has set up an online petition urging the FDA to limit this chemical in soft drinks. You can sign it by visiting

In the meantime, If you want to reduce the risk of ingesting 4-MEIs in your beverages, for now, the only option, according to Consumer Reports, is to "consume few if any products that list caramel color or artificial color on their labels."

If you ever wanted to cut back on your soda intake, now seems like a very good time to start.

Follow Laine Doss on Twitter @LaineDoss and Facebook.

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