nutrition

Caramel coloring in Pepsi: Is it safe?

July 3, 2013 at 10:05 PM ET

The caramel coloring used in Pepsi still contains a chemical linked to cancer in lab mice, despite the soda maker's agreement to change the formula, an environmental company said Wednesday.

In August 2012, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola said they would modify their colas after the California state legislature voted to name a caramel coloring agent a carcinogen. But after testing cola products in 10 states, the Center for Environmental Health said it found high levels of the caramel coloring agent called 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) in all Pepsi cola products. Coke products didn’t contain the chemical.

The watchdog group said it commissioned Eurofins, a commercial bio-analytical testing laboratory, to test Coke and Pepsi products from California in May and nationwide in June, according to The Associated Press. The Pepsi formula has been modified in California, the group found.

Used mostly in soft drinks, this caramel coloring agent is not made from natural caramel, but in a chemical process involving ammonia.

To avoid a cancer-label warning on every can of soda, both Coke and Pepsi agreed to phase out the 4-MEI from their soda formulas. It's a coloring agent, so no change in taste is at risk, a big issue for consumers. While the soda producers have agreed to remove 4-MEI, they insist that there is no safety issue for humans, based on the science.

“PepsiCo strongly refutes any claim that any product we sell anywhere is unsafe," a spokesperson said in an email to NBC News. "The safety of our products is PepsiCo’s top priority and we abide by the regulatory guidelines everywhere we do business."

The Food and Drug Administration seems to support that view, commenting that a consumer would need to consume more than 1,000 cans of soda every day to reach the doses linked to cancer in rodent studies. Other regulatory agencies, including the European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada also consider the caramel coloring safe for use in beverages and food.

Pepsi said the manufacturing process to "reduce the amount of 4-MEI" its sodas would be completed by February 2014 in the U.S.

Meanwhile, should there be any health concerns for consuming soda containing 4-MEI?

In a practical sense, this is the least of the problems associated with drinking soda, including excess sugar, loads of calories, and a risk for dental cavities. It is not a small point that the dosage in the animal studies linked to cancer is not at all translatable to human consumption. Consumers need to be aware of the big picture: Even water can be toxic in unhealthy amounts -- or vitamins or fiber.

We must also use a voice of reason when it comes to linking foods to cancer risk, even for unhealthy "junk" foods like soda.

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