Months after Coca-Cola reformulated its soda sold in California to reduce the level of chemical 4-methylimidazole (4-MI or 4-MEI) so that it would not need a carcinogen warning label, the company has not yet tweaked its formulation for other states and countries, new test results show.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest found that Coca-Cola sold abroad contains varying levels of the chemical, which is found in the caramel coloring used to make cola dark brown. The compound has shown to be carcinogenic in some animal studies and CSPI has petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban 4-MI from food products.
Coca-Cola from Brazil was found to contain 267 micrograms (mcg) of the carcinogen in a 12 ounce can. The same product from Kenya had 177 mcg per 12 ounces. Samples taken from Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and the United Kingdom ranged from 144 mcg to 160 mcg per 12 ounces.
Since the state of California recently added 4-MI to its list of carcinogens that must be labeled if found at a certain level, Coca-Cola modified its process to circumvent adding a warning label. The company said at the time that it would eventually expand the use of low 4-MI caramel coloring across the United States and worldwide.
CSPI found just 4 mcg per 12 ounces in soda from the redwood state, but found 144 mcg per 12 ounces in the same product purchased in the District of Columbia. The California law requires food companies to label their product if it would lead to consumers consuming 30 mcg or more each day.
CSPI said their test results “show alarming levels of the carcinogen” in Coca-Cola sold abroad, but FDA and beverage companies have long maintained that consumers are not at risk from the low levels of 4-MI present in some sodas.
In an oft-quoted statement, FDA spokesman Douglas Karas noted in March that a person would have to consume “well over a thousand cans of soda a day to reach the doses administered in the studies that have shown links to cancer in rodents.”
Dr. James Coughlin, a toxicologist and food industry consultant, told Food Safety News that, by his calculations, a consumer would actually have to consumer more than that.
For humans to reach the equivalent of even the lowest cancer-causing dose in mice, Coughlin estimates a woman would have to drink 37,000 12 ounce cans per day for the rest of her life. A man would have to drink a closer to 95,000 12 ounce cans a day. These estimates are based on a 12 ounce can containing 130 mcg.
“It’s certainly not a health risk,” Coughlin told Food Safety News. “Cola is not causing cancer in humans. It’s just not happening.”
“The caramel color in all of our products has been, is and always will be safe,” said Coca-Cola in March. “We have asked our caramel manufacturers to modify their production process to reduce the amount of 4-MEI in the caramel, but that will have no effect on the formula or on the great-tasting, high-quality products that consumers expect from us.”
CSPI has continued to argue that the exposure is unnecessary and should be eliminated.
“Now that we know it’s possible to almost totally eliminate this carcinogen from colas, there’s no excuse for Coca-Cola and other companies not to do so worldwide, and not just in California,” said the group’s executive director Michael Jacobson.
CSPI said their test results will soon be published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.© Food Safety News