Apr 10, 2014 1:00 PM

Author: Office of Public Affairs

If your favorite soft drink is brown, you might want to cut back on your soda habit.

According to an analysis conducted by Consumer Reports, some sodas contained high levels of a coloring additive known to cause cancer in mice.

Last year, between April and September, and then again in December, researchers with Consumer Reports bought 12 popular brands of bottled and canned sodas in California and New York to test for 4-methylimidazole, also called 4-MEI. You know it as caramel food coloring, the chemical that makes many foods and beverages golden-brown. 

While there is no medical consensus that 4-MEI causes humans harm, the World Health Organization, the state of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and others believe it could cause cancer when consumed in high doses based on experiments performed on mice. 

California now requires manufacturers to label products with a cancer warning if ingestion exposes people to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MEI. (Utah has no such regulation at this time.) In the Consumer Reports analysis, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Pepsi One and Malta Goya all were found to have 4-MEI levels above that threshold in three or more of its four test groups.

Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and Coke Zero as well as Dr. Pepper and A&W Root Beer contained amounts of 4-MEI below the 29-microgram level when Consumer Reports tested them. The clear soft drink Sprite contained “no significant level” of the coloring, the report said.

The Food and Drug Administration is conducting its own safety analysis now, but the agency is not advising consumers to stop drinking soda based on 4-MEI exposure.

Soda Industry Responds

The soft drink industry defended the safety of its products in the wake of the report. Trade group the American Beverage Association (ABA) said in a statement after the Consumer Reports findings were published that 4-MEI is safe, but that the industry was reformulating the caramel coloring it uses to cut down on the amount in drinks.

“Consumers can rest assured that our industry's beverages are safe,” the group said. “In fact, FDA has noted that a consumer ‘would have to drink more than a thousand cans of soda in a day to match the doses administered in studies that showed links to cancer in rodents.’”

The ABA’s statement also pointed out that 4-MEI is present in trace amounts in a host of foods and drinks, including coffee, baked goods, molasses, soy sauce, gravies — and even certain beers.

Limit Soda Intake

This fact doesn’t give you carte blanche to guzzle as many soft drinks as you want, though. Julie Metos, PhD, RD, an assistant professor and interim chair of the Division of Nutrition at the University of Utah College of Health, says there are plenty of other reasons to enjoy this treat in moderation.

“Generally speaking, soda is one of the biggest contributors to excessive sugar in the American diet,” Metos says, noting that a 12-ounce can has about 150 calories that scientists think are going straight to our hips, bellies and backsides.

“Looking longitudinally at the weight gain in the U.S., … they can actually show that the weight gain is likely from that extra soda that we’ve been consuming over the last 20 years,” Metos says. “There’s evidence that it’s one of the major contributors to overweight and obesity,” she says.

Metos explains that since they’re in liquid form, the sweeteners in soft drinks don’t make you feel as full as eating solid food, which can make soft-drink lovers overeat. “The sugar is very lipogenic, so it contributes to fat stores and changes your metabolism in a way that’s detrimental to your health,” she adds.

Unfortunately, sticking to diet soda doesn’t get you totally off the hook, Metos says.

“I think diet soda is a better option, but it’s not a perfect one,” she says. According to Metos, since you’re still drinking something sweet, your palate stays accustomed to sugary tastes rather than more healthful, natural flavors.


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