Is Your Favorite Soda Carcinogenic?
A new study out of Johns Hopkins has revealed that one of the most popular soda ingredients poses a cancer risk to soda drinkers. Certain types of caramel color, commonly used in colas and dark soft drinks, contain a potentially carcinogenic byproduct, 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI). 4-MEI forms during the manufacturing process used to make some types of caramel color.
“Soft drink consumers are being exposed to an avoidable and unnecessary cancer risk from an ingredient that is being added to these beverages simply for aesthetic purposes,” says Keeve Nachman, PhD, senior author of the study and director of the Food Production and Public Health Program at the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This unnecessary exposure poses a threat to public health and raises questions about the continued use of caramel coloring in soda.”
Consumer Reports and CLF have been working since 2013 to estimate the cancer burden associated with 4-MEI exposure. Initially, they analyzed 4-MEI concentrations of 11 soft drinks. The new study expanded the samples to 110 soft drinks purchased from California and New York grocery stores. The results of this analysis were paired with statistics on population beverage consumption provided by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
The study results, authored by lead researcher Tyler Smith of John Hopkins, indicated that levels of the 4-MEI chemical compound found in soft drinks could vary widely across samples, even for the same soda type taken out of a different container. Currently, there are no warning labels on soft drinks with caramel color indicating that unsafe amounts of 4-MEI chemical compounds may be present.
Following the study, Consumer Reports has started its efforts for setting a federal limit for 4-MEI in food and beverages. In 2014, it petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to set limits for the potential carcinogen. It also informed California’s Attorney General Office of the report findings, because this office is responsible for enforcing the Proposition 65 law that warns consumers about possibly toxic chemicals in foods.
“This new analysis underscores our belief that people consume significant amounts of soda that unnecessarily elevate their risk of cancer over the course of a lifetime,” says Urvashi Rangan, PhD, executive director for Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “We believe beverage makers and the government should take the steps needed to protect public health. California has already taken an important step by setting a threshold for prompting Prop 65 labeling based on daily 4-MEI exposure from a food or beverage, such as a soda. This study sought to answer a critical question: How much soda do American consumers drink on average?”
Furthermore, the researchers found it interesting that levels of 4-MEI varied widely when comparing soft drinks from New York metro areas to California.
“Our study also found that some of the soft drink products sold in California that we sampled had lower levels of 4-MEI than the samples we looked at of the same beverages sold outside the state, particularly in our earlier rounds of testing. It appears that regulations such as California’s Proposition 65 may be effective at reducing exposure to 4-MEI from soft drinks, and that beverages can be manufactured in ways that produce less 4-MEI,” suggests Nachman. “An FDA intervention, such as determining maximum levels for 4-MEI in beverages, could be a valuable approach to reducing excess cancer risk attributable to 4-MEI exposure in the U.S. population.”
Do you believe that the government should become involved in warning consumers about the potential risk of consuming sodas, similarly to the labeling requirements of the tobacco industry?
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