Caramel Coloring in Soda: What You Should Know About This Innocent-Sounding Ingredient

If you were waiting for one more reason to give up your soda habit, you now certainly have one.
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Food marketers have long had a special knack for euphemism. (If you didn't believe me I'd offer you a Rocky Mountain oyster.) But even as someone who has watched the food industry closely for 40 years, sometimes even I can get taken by surprise.

One such case is an innocent-sounding ingredient that appears on Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other soft drinks: "caramel coloring." Now, I've long urged Americans to drink less soda. It's a nutritionally worthless beverage that provides nothing of benefit to the diet, but whose sugars promote weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. Another typical soda ingredient, phosphoric acid, rots teeth. Caffeine is a mildly addictive stimulant drug.

One ingredient in a can of Coke or Pepsi I've never been concerned about is "caramel coloring." After all, wouldn't that just mean the drink was colored with the kind of caramel you could make at home, by melting and browning sugar in a pan?

The truth is more complicated. It turns out that federal regulations describe four types of caramel coloring. And at least three of them are quite different from the confection with the similar name. All of them do start out with some form of sugar. One is called plain caramel. A second involves reacting the sugar with sulfites. A third is made be reacting sugars with ammonium compounds. And in the fourth variety of caramel coloring--the kind used in Coke and Pepsi--sugars are reacted with both ammonium and sulfite compounds. Both the regulations and some manufacturers' Web sites call this form of caramel coloring Caramel IV, or less appetizingly, ammonia-sulfite process caramel.

Reacting sugars with ammonia results in the formation of numerous chemical byproducts. Two of them, 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole, have been shown in government studies to promote lung, liver, and thyroid tumors in laboratory rats and mice.

California public health officials recently placed 4-methylimidazole on the state's list of known carcinogens. Scientists at the University of California at Davis recently found significant levels of 4 methylimidazole in colas that far exceeds what the state considers to be safe. This sets the stage for warning labels on diet and regular Coke and Pepsi and many other soft drinks unless the companies shift to safer colorings. Going one step further, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is today asking the Food and Drug Administration to bar the use of ammonia- and ammonia-sulfite process caramel colorings.

Considering that the purpose of this contaminated caramel coloring is purely cosmetic, we hope the FDA quickly acts to protect Americans from an unnecessary cancer risk.

Because 2- and 4-methylimidazole do not appear to be highly potent carcinogens, the 10 teaspoons of obesity-promoting high-fructose corn syrup in a can of cola should still be considered a much greater health risk. But if you were waiting for one more reason to give up your cola habit, you now certainly have one.

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