The Creeping Menace of Caramel Coloring

Ever read a can of soda and stopped at the words "caramel coloring"? It sounds so innocent and tasty. Who doesn't like caramel? Nothing to worry about here.

Wrong, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has filed a regulatory petition asking that the FDA ban the coloring agent used in sodas such as Coke and Pepsi, because it contains carcinogenic substances.

The problem lies with the way caramel coloring is made. Though you might picture a pan full of hot sugar, in the lab, various types of sugars are put under high pressure and temperatures with ammonia and sulfites. There are four kinds of caramel coloring; types III and IV are the ones CSPI is worried about, containing as they do the substances 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole. Shall we let CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson explain why this is a problem? Seems that 2-MI and 4-MI "have been shown in government studies to promote lung, liver, and thyroid tumors in laboratory rats and mice." Oh really? Terrific.

The state of California has already placed 4-MI on its list of known carcinogens. CSPI wants the FDA to go further. "As Congress recognized when it passed the food and color additives amendments 50 years ago, chemicals that cause cancer in animals have no place in the food supply," CSPI writes in its 16-page report on the matter. "That is particularly true when the chemicals serve only a cosmetic function, as opposed to a nutritional or preservative function. Barring the use of the caramel colorings produced with ammonia could prevent cancer in thousands of consumers."

Kinda creepy when you consider that caramel coloring is in everything. Everything! Check out a few package labels sometime. It's in chips, beer, baked goods, drinks of all kinds, whiskey, even soy sauce! Granted it's not all kinds of caramel color that are under fire, and also that, as Jacobson writes in the Huffington Post, "Because 2- and 4-methylimidazole do not appear to be highly potent carcinogens, the 10 teaspoons of obesity-promoting high-fructose corn syrup in a can of cola should still be considered a much greater health risk." Still, the days when we skipped merrily over the words "caramel coloring" on an ingredient list should probably come to an end.

Image source: Flickr member Cavin under Creative Commons