Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a petition Wednesday asking that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ban two types of carcinogenic chemicals often labeled as “caramel coloring,” most often on products like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other dark-colored colas.

According to CSPI, the artificial brown coloring is made by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites under high pressure and temperatures and those reactions “result in the formation of 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazole, which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats.”

CSPI referred to a National Institutes of Health National Toxicology Program study that found “clear evidence” that both 2-MI and 4 MI are animal carcinogens. The state of California also recently added 4 MI to its list of “chemicals known to the state to cause cancer.” If the state goes forward with regulation, Coke, Pepsi and other soft drinks would be required to sport a cancer warning label, according to the group.

“Carcinogenic colorings have no place in the food supply, especially considering that their only function is a cosmetic one,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The FDA should act quickly to revoke its approval of caramel colorings made with ammonia.”

Caramel III, a type of coloring produced with ammonia, but not sulfites, used to make certain types of beer, soy sauce, and other dark brown foods, is also being targeted by CSPI.

The trade group representing America’s food makers, the Grocery Manufacturers Association issued a statement in response to the petition Wednesday denying CSPI’s claims.

“Ensuring the safety of our products – and maintaining the confidence of consumers – is the single most important goal of our industry.  Product safety is the foundation of consumer trust, and our industry devotes enormous resources to ensure that our products are safe.  Our companies continuously review and monitor all emerging science and scientific studies and incorporate these as warranted into our manufacturing practices to help ensure that we are always producing the safest possible product for our consumers,” read the statement.
“4-MEI is found in trace amounts in a wide variety of foods and beverages,” continued GMA. “There is no evidence that 4-MEI causes cancer or poses any other health risks to humans.  In addition, no health regulatory agency around the globe, including the FDA, has said that 4-MEI is a known human carcinogen.”

  • Louis Rasky

    According to ingredients for AW Root Beer they use caramel coloring. However, there are different types of caramel coloring, what is in the AW caramel coloring?

  • Art Davis

    Given the advances in epidemiology, the wide spread and long term use of Caramel color / flavor, and the fact that cancers are one of the most widely reported and tracked disease entities one would expect any relationship to have come to some level of notice by now. If there is a connection it certainly can’t be very strong and it is of course impossible to prove that there is no connection. Perhaps CSPI should work on regulating, if not preventing, exposure of skin to the sun. Has California posted its beaches with “Sunshine is served at this beach and is known to the State of California to cause cancer”?

  • Michael Bulger

    The State of California and its Department of Public Health work to alert the public as to the connection between sun exposure and skin cancer. Here’s a link: http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/SkinCancer/Documents/skin_sunproteccurriculum.pdf

  • Donald Bullock

    Remember Pepsi clear? It was so weird; it was clear but still tasted like Pepsi. It took a little getting used to, but remember, blue chocolate chip cookies still taste good too.

  • CSPI is behind this… that’s strike 1.
    But science is science, no matter who reports it, so the next question would be at what levels is the cancer in mice supposed to occur and is the amount of coloring used above or below that amount?
    A little coloring often goes a very long way, so even if this is a carcinogen at certain levels, it may not matter at the levels it’s used in the food industry.
    If it’s used in amounts that are unsafe, then they will certainly move to reduce the amount that companies are allowed to add and food scientists will eventually come up with an alternative coloring.

  • Art Davis

    MB—Actually a rather nice presentation on sun safety but not really in line with the Prop 65 warnings as noted in the CSPI note and seen ad nauseam throughout the state.
    SV—This is essentially the old “Threshold Effect” argument regarding dose / response. CSPI simply doesn’t accept the concept of a threshold dose for damage as it interferes with their fund raising through fear program.

  • Michael Bulger

    You brought up sunlight. Prop 65 applies to chemicals and businesses, no? I don’t think California or sunlight fall into either of those categories, but then I’m only out there once or twice a year.
    What would you say to culminating thresholds? If we consume 100 different products with 1/100 of the carcinogenic dose… At some point, a carcinogen is a carcinogen. The consumers deserve to know what they are consuming.
    It seems GMA is not abreast with the findings of NIH and California.

  • Doc Mudd

    The imaginative notion of “culminating thresholds” might catch on as a fad diet.
    If you ingest 100 nutrients, each at 1/100 the required level, you will probably lose a lot of unsightly flab before being physically distorted by kwashiorkor and completely debilitated by rickets, beri-beri, pellegra, scurvy, etc.
    Same concept for carcinogens. 100 separate compounds @ 0.001 dose each is not necessarily equivalent to 1 effective dose of any one carcinogen or nutrient or antibiotic…
    To foist such fuzzy math and faux science on consumers would be irresponsible.
    Consumers deserve to be left alone by misquided scaremongers who would ureasonably hound them into apoplexy out of sheer paranoia.
    CSPI has respect for neither science or the public interest.

  • Michael Bulger

    I’d go along with one hundred 0.01 doses possibly not having the same effect as one dose. It might take less when you factor in other carcinogens in the environment. How does 2-MI and 4-MI interact with one another and other carcinogens?
    Before you can answer that, I wouldn’t pooh-pooh the idea that an “acceptable” level of a known carcinogen isn’t worth the caramel color.

  • Doc Mudd

    Instead of merely invoking the paranoia factor, please get back to us on the culminating threshold boogieman after you’ve worked out all of the biochemical synergies and antagonisms, and have established reliable LD50s in each instance. That would be a fine contribution to science.
    Color soda pop any way you please or not at all, as you wish. I have no preference for myself nor do I care to impose one on others. Stick a scary label on it, if that will calm your anxiety. Just don’t come crying when people ignore your sticker and fail to do precisely as you’ve instructed them.

  • Art Davis

    What evidence would have to exist for you to take a case claiming that a 10 year old kids cancer was due to caramel coloring in, for example, Coca Cola?

  • Franklin

    Widely spread are the effects of too much Cocacola, just they haven’t made public. For instance, the 2nd highest consumption per capita in the world is in Yucatan State, in Mexico, and it is known to have a higher than average cancer and diabetes for the Mexican country. I think it’s worth to continue the research and find out the truth.

  • Caramel Coloring is bad and does hurt people. I’m a prime example of it. Depending how much caramel coloring is in the product depends on how bad my reaction is and how sick I get. I can get bad nasty gas for a little caramel coloring, to diarrhea with a moderate amounts, to an asthmatic attack within minutes for large amounts. No wonder I would get sick since a child on certain foods. It was always hard to pinpoint the problem. I knew I have trouble with caffeine since I always got sick drinking cola, having coke syrup or taking medicines with high amounts of caffeine. But while on a food elimination diet to find my daughter’s problems, I got sick on two items. The only key ingredient in both was caramel coloring. Since then, when I get sick, if I go back and check the labels, the item always have caramel coloring. We are checking labels since I got sick on vitamins with it in. I wish they would eliminate caramel coloring in items for consumption.