Coca-Cola has announced it will change the colouring in its signature soft drink, after health authorities in California threatened to force the company to affix a “carcinogen” label to the beverage.
The chemical in question is 4-methylimidazole, a component of the chemical stew that’s typically simplified down to “caramel colouring” on food labels.
“Coke and Pepsi, with the acquiescence of the FDA, are needlessly exposing millions of Americans to a chemical that causes cancer,” the Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote in a press release this week. The U.S. organization has led the charge against inclusion of the chemical in food.
“The colouring is completely cosmetic, adding nothing to the flavour of the product. If companies can make brown food colouring that is carcinogen-free, the industry should use that.”
The centre also estimated that the chemical in “Coke and Pepsi products tested is causing about 15,000 cancers in the U.S. population.”
At very least, the centre said, regulators should change the name of the additive to “ammonia-sulfite process caramel colouring” or “chemically modified caramel colouring”
Though the company will change the formulation of its colouring, it isn't doing so gladly. “The company did make the decision to ask its caramel suppliers to make the necessary manufacturing process modifications to meet the requirement of the State of California,” Diana Garza Ciarlante, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman, told National Public Radio. But the colouring used has always been safe, she added. For now, the ingredient change is taking place only in California.
“This is nothing more than CSPI scare tactics and their claims are outrageous,” the American Beverage Association wrote in a statement.
“All of our products are safe and comply with regulations in every country where we operate," Coca-Cola Canada said in a statement. "Regulators throughout the world, including Health Canada, have approved the use of the caramel found in our products. The colour of Coca-Cola is not changing."
Anti-regulation groups have come out swinging in the chemical’s defence. One of them went so far as to call the U.S. Center for Science in the Public Interest's lobbying against the chemical as a part of “the old cancer scam.”
Citing a study from 1951, Josh Bloom wrote: “When the authors tried to find the minimum amount of 4-MEI required to show toxicity, it was estimated to be 5 grams per day per rat, a crazy high number. Applied to humans, that comes to 700 grams per day. To put this in perspective, this is weight of three boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese before cooking. That's how much chemical you would have to eat.”
Should any amount of carcinogens be allowed in food?
Editor's note: This version of the story has been updated to include information from a statement issued by Coca-Cola Canada.