Cola and Cancer: Linked Again

Group claims the caramel coloring in Coke and Pepsi contains unsafe levels of carcinogenic chemicals.
Caramel coloring gives soda its distinctive brown hue, but could it be giving you cancer? (Photo: John Nordell/Getty Images)
Mar 5, 2012· 1 MIN READ

Remember when the "cola wars" were the biggest controversy in the world of soda? Things have changed. A recent study by The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reveals that popular sodas like Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi contain potentially dangerous amounts of carcinogenic caramel coloring.

The CSPI tested levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-MI) and 2-methylimidazole (2-MI) in cans of soda purchased at Washington, D.C., grocery stores and found all four soda brands to contain more than 100 micrograms of 4-MI. The U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) has determined that both chemicals cause liver tumors, lung tumors, and thyroid tumors in rats and mice.

Should you be worried? The CSPI thinks so. They're redoubling their efforts to petition the FDA to “revoke regulations authorizing the use of caramel coloring in foods.” Meanwhile, caramel coloring does absolutely nothing to enhance soda’s flavor. “The coloring is completely cosmetic, adding nothing to the flavor of the product," says CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "If companies can make brown food coloring that is carcinogen-free, the industry should use that.”

This caramel isn't the stuff you put on ice cream—it's created by heating ammonia and sulfites under high pressure. Five renowned experts on animal carcinogens joined together in 2011 to write a letter to support this petition, adding that “the American public should not be exposed to any cancer risk whatsoever as a result of consuming such chemicals, especially when they serve a non-essential, cosmetic purpose."

For its part, the FDA, claims that the amount of 4-MI and 2-MI found in products is not enough to "match the doses administered in studies that linked cancer and rodents."

The Coca-Cola company has released a statement of its own, and (not surprisingly), they stand by their product: "Unlike CSPI, The Coca-Cola Company deals in hard facts," says Ben Sheidler, a representative of the company. "Fact: The body of science about 4-MEI in foods or beverages does not support the erroneous allegations that CSPI would like the public to believe. The 4-MEI levels in our products pose no health or safety risks. Outside of California, no regulatory agency concerned with protecting the public's health has stated that 4-MEI is a human carcinogen. The caramel color in all of our ingredients has been, is and always will be safe. That is a fact."

Hmm. Maybe it's time for a resurgence of Crystal Pepsi?