Caramel Color in Soda Poses Cancer Risk

Glass of ColaDrinking soda like cola that contains caramel color may increase the risk of cancer above the accepted threshold of one extra case in every 100,000 individuals because the chemical process during the manufacture of the caramel coloring produces a carcinogen known as 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), suggests an analysis from Consumer Reports.

One of the oldest and most widely used food colorings, caramel color is a water soluble food coloring made by heat treatment of carbohydrates in the presence of acids, alkalis, or salts, in a process called caramelization. Caramel color is widely approved for use in foods and beverages globally but application and use level restrictions vary by country. Manufactures add the food coloring for aesthetic purposes.

For the present study, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF)  in Baltimore, Maryland took laboratory readings on 110 samples of soda brands and analyzed soft drink consumption using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

State the researchers, “We analyzed consumption of all sodas, and further categorized soda into five mutually exclusive categories: 1) cola, 2) diet-cola, 3) root beer, 4) pepper cola and 5) other (non-diet) cola.” The proportion of the population consuming each type of soft drink varied with colas as the most popular and root beer and pepper colas as the least popular. Average daily consumptions of any soda were between 550 and 1,070 milliliters by 16- to 20-year-olds and between 457 and 864 milliliters by 45- to 64-year-olds.

According to the testing on the sodas, the beverages contained levels of 4-MEI ranging from 9.5 micrograms per liter to 963 micrograms per liter. Although concentrations of 4-MEI varied considerably by soda brand and state of purchase, the amounts were “generally consistent across lots of the same beverage purchased in the same state/area.”

Adds Tyler Smith, lead author of the study and a program officer with the CLF, “For example, for diet colas, certain samples had higher or more variable levels of the compound, while other samples had very low concentrations.”

California law requires that beverages must include warning labels if the product contains enough 4-MEI to pose an excess cancer risk of more than one case in every 100,000 exposed individuals, which equals an exposure of 29 micrograms per liter of 4-MEI daily.

Based on the present study, the majority of sodas that contain caramel color also contain potentially harmful levels of 4-MEI.

Says senior author Keeve Nachman, PhD, director of the Food Production and Public Health Program at the CLF and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health:

“Soft drink consumers are being exposed to an avoidable and unnecessary cancer risk from an ingredient that is being added to these beverages simply for aesthetic purposes. This unnecessary exposure poses a threat to public health and raises questions about the continued use of caramel coloring in soda.”

The researchers believe that the findings indicate that “federal regulation of 4-MEI in caramel color may be appropriate.”

Concludes Urvashi Rangan, PhD, executive director for Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center:

“This new analysis underscores our belief that people consume significant amounts of soda that unnecessarily elevate their risk of cancer over the course of a lifetime. We believe beverage makers and the government should take the steps needed to protect public health. California has already taken an important step by setting a threshold for prompting Prop 65 labeling based on daily 4-MEI exposure from a food or beverage, such as a soda. This study sought to answer a critical question: How much soda do American consumers drink on average?”

Another recent study found that girls who frequently consume sugary drinks like soda often begin menstruating earlier, increasing the risk of breast cancer.


Another reason to cut back on soda:
Caramel color:
Caramel color in soft drinks and exposure to 4-methylimidazole: A quantitative risk assessment:
Daily cola ‘raises cancer risk’ due to caramel coloring:
Popular soda ingredient poses cancer risk to consumers:

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