What’s All the Uproar About Caramel Color?

Caramel color:  it sounds harmless – maybe even delicious – so why has it suddenly caused enough concern to draw Food and Drug Administration (FDA) attention? “Caramel color” is a common name for a type of artificial coloring regularly added to soft drinks and other foods to turn them brown. In fact, according to some studies and reports, caramel color is the single most used food coloring in the world. But some types of caramel color contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI). In recent tests performed by the well-known consumer advocate group Consumer Reports, certain soft drinks were found to have high enough levels of 4-MeI to raise a few eyebrows. 

Consumer Reports tested 12 brands of sodas and soft drinks purchased from both New York and California to determine the levels of 4-MeI contained in one can or bottle of each beverage. A few brands had notably higher levels of 4-MeI, including several Pepsi brands and Malta Goya, particularly with respect to those soft drinks purchased in the New York area. Two brands in particular – Pepsi One and Malta Goya – had more than 29 micrograms per 12-ounce can with respect to cans purchased both in New York and in California. Those levels were high enough to possibly run afoul of California’s Proposition 65 law, which requires manufacturers to label any product sold in the state with a cancer warning if it exposes consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI per day.

At present, there is no federal limit for levels of 4-MeI in foods and beverages, but given the concerning results of its testing, Consumer Reports has called the FDA to action. Since Consumer Reports published the results of its soft drink tests on January 23, 2014, it has petitioned the FDA to set a federal standard for acceptable amounts of 4-MeI in food and beverages. It also requested in the meantime the FDA require manufacturers to list the specific type of caramel color used in its products’ ingredient lists, thus allowing consumers to understand whether they use one of the types that contains 4-MeI. Thus far, the FDA has embarked upon an “assessment period,” during which it will take a closer look at the types of caramel coloring used in food and beverages and what amounts are acceptable. However, the  FDA has not yet recommended that consumers change their diets due to concerns about 4-MeI.

As the FDA continues its investigation into caramel color, it will likely determine whether a federal standard for allowable caramel color is warranted. It may even impose labeling requirements for products containing caramel color or 4-MeI, much like California’s Proposition 65. Manufacturers of food and beverages that currently use any type of caramel color in their products should take note and watch for further FDA guidance.

For the full Consumer Reports testing results, click here.

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