Will Your Coke or Pepsi Soft Drink Really Cause Cancer?

Mar 6 2012 - 3:56pm
Soft drinks, soda and cancer

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is warning Americans that a chemical found in cola beverages has been linked to cancer in animals. The American Beverage Association has countered that the ingredient found in caramel coloring is general recognized as safe (GRAS) according to the FDA and that no study to date has proven a link to cancer in humans. Does your daily soft drink habit put you at a greater risk of developing cancer?

An independent study commissioned by CSPI tested 7 soft drink brands purchased in Washington DC stores for a chemical ingredient known as 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MI. This component is formed as a byproduct during the reaction that uses ammonia and sulfites to produce the caramel coloring in brown sodas. It is also found in coffee, some beers, baked goods and molasses.

The nonprofit group found that 4-MI levels ranged between 103 mcg and 153 mcg per 12 ounce can – 4.8 times higher than the maximum level allowable by California law without a safety warning label on the can.

The state of California has banned 4-MI in any amount that could potentially lead to one cancer case in 100,000 people. However the levels found in the 4 leading Cola brands (Coke/Diet Coke, Pepsi/Diet Pepsi) indicated a lifetime risk of 5 cancers out of 100,000, assuming that people drink one soft drink per day. That risk rises to 10 cancers out of 100,000 people who drink only soft drinks containing caramel coloring.

Other brands, such as Dr. Pepper/Diet Dr. Pepper and Whole Foods’ 365 Cola, had detectable levels of 4-MI, but lower than the leading brands.

CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson says, "Coke and Pepsi…are needlessly exposing millions of Americans to a chemical that causes cancer. The coloring is completely cosmetic, adding nothing to the flavor of the product. If companies can make brown food coloring that is carcinogen-free, the industry should use that. Otherwise, the FDA needs to protect consumers from this risk by banning the coloring."

The FDA, as mentioned earlier, has approved 4-MI as safe, but is reviewing the petition sent to the agency by CSPI. Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also affirm the ingredient is safe to consume. The American Beverage Company notes that “A person would need to drink more than 2,900 cans of cola every day for 70 years to reach the lowest dose levels mice received in the single study upon which California [based it’s regulation]”

The FDA does limit the amount of 4-MI in colas to less than 250 parts per million (ppm). The highest levels found in the CSPI study (when converted to ppm) were about 0.4 ppm.

This situation is very similar to the one surrounding the ban and later reinstatement of the sweetener saccharin. Saccharine was the first artificial sweetener produced in the US in 1977. The FDA first required a warning label on any food that contained the ingredient with a disclaimer that saccharin caused cancer in laboratory mice. However, later, the agency reversed its decision after finding that the mechanism that caused cancer in rats was not found in humans.

To date, there is not a human study that links 4-MI to cancer in people.
So what about those with the one-a-day soft drink habit…Are they safe? Well, yes and no. So far, unless you are a very heavy soda drinker – whether regular or diet, caramel colored or clear – you probably are safe. However, there have been studies that link soft drink consumption with other aspects of poor health.



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