Consumers may associate the term caramel coloring on an ingredient label with the caramel they may make themselves in their kitchens by cooking down sugar in a pot on their stoves. It’s not the same thing. Caramel coloring is an artificial food coloring that lends a brown hue to the foods and beverages in which it is included. It’s commonly found in colas and other dark-colored sodas like root beer, but it’s also included in a variety of different food products. It’s a controversial ingredient and it’s more than a little complicated.
For years, caramel coloring has been debated as a possible carcinogen. The FDA now says it is taking a new look at caramel coloring after Consumer Reports said it found higher than expected levels of a potentially cancer-causing agent in some sodas.
The group said its tests of soft drinks using caramel coloring show some contain higher-than-necessary levels of a compound called 4-methylimidazole or 4-MEI.
The FDA says there’s no evidence the compound is unsafe as used, but a spokeswoman said the agency would look closer after the Consumer Reports complaints.
“The FDA has studied the use of caramel as a flavor and as a color additive in foods for decades,” the agency said in a statement. It said it would test a variety of foods, including sodas, for 4-MEI, but added, “Currently, the FDA has no reason to believe that 4-MEI, at the levels expected in food from the use of caramel colors, poses a health risk to consumers.”
But California does classify the chemical as a possible carcinogen and Consumer Reports says its tests of certain sodas showed higher than allowed levels in some bought in California.
And it says companies should remove the chemical if there’s any doubt.
“This is about coloring food brown,” Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist who heads Consumer Reports’ food safety and sustainability center, said in a telephone interview. “We think of this as an unnecessary risk. It’s a food additive — we should know that it is safe.”
And Pepsi, maker of some of the drinks Consumers Reports tested, says the consumer group is mistaken.
“We have serious questions about Consumer Response’s conclusion,” Pepsi spokeswoman Aurora Gonzalez said in an email.
She said the soft drink maker had lowered levels of 4-MEI in its products. “PepsiCo abides by the law everywhere we do business. When the regulatory requirements changed in California, PepsiCo moved immediately to meet the new requirements in California. We also decided to voluntarily apply those same standards in the rest of the country, and we are on track to complete that rollout by February 2014,” she said.
Pepsi also questioned how Consumer Reports decided that some soft drinks exceeded the limits set by California.
The group said other brands of soft drink appeared to have lowered their levels of 4-MEI to acceptable ranges.
Rangan said she did not know whether the re-formulated drinks were safer, but she was glad the levels of 4-MEI were reduced.
“How they are tweaking that formulation, we don’t know,” she said. “Are they doing something else? We don’t know. We are not privy to that information,” she added. “We don’t even know which caramel coloring they are using, exactly.”
That’s because there are four different types of caramel coloring: plain caramel, a type that reacts sugar with sulfites, a type that reacts sugars with ammonium and one that reacts sugars with both ammonium and sulfites (that’s the one used in most sodas). The last two types are considered the most controversial. Both of these contain the known carcinogens 2-MEI and 4-MEI. But manufacturers aren’t required to list which type they are using in any product.
FoodFacts.com has never understood how potentially cancer causing chemicals are allowed in our food supply. We are well aware that soda is not the only product category containing caramel color. Suggesting that avoiding the ingredient is as simple as avoiding darker-hued sodas like cola just doesn’t tell the whole story. This is absolutely an ingredient that deserves further scrutiny from the FDA. We believe in transparency in our food supply. The fact that manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the type of caramel coloring they are using doesn’t sit well with us and it shouldn’t make consumers happy either. If we can’t achieve a ban for the more dangerous types of the ingredient, we should at least be made aware of the specific content of the coloring used.