Americans are consuming enough soda to put their health at risk, and it's not just because of the added sugar and calories. According to a new analysis from Consumer Reports and the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, soda consumption is so high it exposes Americans to unhealthy levels of the potential carcinogen 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), found in caramel coloring.
While not directly added, 4-Mel forms when the caramel coloring is added to turn soda and soft drinks brown. The study, which was published in the online journal PLOS ONE, looked at 110 samples of soda and soft drinks purchased in California and New York. The average 4-Mel levels in samples ranged from 3.4 to 352.5 micrograms (mcg) in a 12-ounce bottle. While there are no federal limits on 4-Mel, California requires cancer warnings on products with more than 29 mcg of 4-Mel.
Researchers also looked at the average level of soda consumption and found half of Americans ages 6 to 64 drink between one 12-ounce can to almost three cans per day. What's worse, one-third of very young children, ages 3 to 5, have close to one can per day.
According to Consumer Reports:
"The findings of this comprehensive study have scientific, policy, and legal implications for calculating cancer risk and establishing limits for 4-MeI in food,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., toxicologist and executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety & Sustainability Center.
Our analysis shows that at this level of consumption, we would expect to see between 76 and 5,000 cases of cancer in the U.S. over the next 70 years from 4-MeI exposure alone. “We don’t think any food additive, particularly one that’s only purpose is to color food brown, should elevate people’s cancer risk,” says Rangan. “Ideally, 4-MeI should not be added to food.”
Besides soda, the chemical is found in a wide variety of other foods like candy, pancake syrup, soy sauce, and barbecue sauce. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA to ban caramel coloring from use in food products in 2011. As a result, the agency is "currently reviewing all available data on the safety of 4-MEI and is reassessing potential consumer exposure to 4-MEI from the use of Class III and Class IV caramel coloring in food products."
Unfortunately thus far, the FDA has found no reason to believe there is any short-term danger in the ingredient at the levels currently used.
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