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US: Science again dismisses caramel colouring scare

CSPI’s press release claims that 15 000 cancers will be caused by the chemical. The consumer group said it commissioned laboratory studies of products including Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Snapple Group’s Dr Pepper and Diet Dr Pepper, and Whole Foods 365 Cola from Washington-area stores.

In the letter to FDA administrator Margaret Hamburg, CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson argued that recent lab analyses show that levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-MI) — which, along with 2-methylimidazole, is formed when sugar is mixed with ammonia and sulfates to create caramel colouring — in 12-oz servings of soda exceed by nearly five times the 29-microgram limit recommended by the state of California.

“Coke and Pepsi, with the acquiescence of the FDA, are needlessly exposing millions of Americans to a chemical that causes cancer,” said Jacobson. “The FDA needs to protect consumers from this risk.”

Actual experts, however, have different views. An FDA spokesman told Bloomberg News that the agency has no reason to believe that caramel colours pose any danger to consumers. Likewise, European and Canadian regulators — who are no strangers to regulations — have found no reason to be concerned by the levels of 4-MEI in the coloring.

The FDA spokesman estimated that a person would have to drink over 1 000 cans of soda per day for life to achieve the dose linked to cancer in one rodent study.  (A Vanderbilt University biochemistry professor made the same estimate when CSPI first trumpeted the scare.) The dose makes the poison, even if the harmful dose spoils a good food scare.

The FDA limit for 4-MI in caramel colouring is 250 parts per million (ppm), and the caramel is diluted when it’s put into soda. Reuters calculated that the highest levels of 4-MI found by the CSPI were about 0.4 ppm, which means consumers would be hard-pressed to expose themselves to enough 4-MI to face much cancer risk.

“This is nothing more than scare tactics,” the American Beverage Association said in a statement, calling the claims “outrageous”.

Diana Garza Ciarlante, a spokeswoman at Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, said 4-MEI poses no health or safety risks.

“Unlike CSPI, The Coca Cola company deals in hard facts. The body of science about 4-MEI in foods or beverages does not support the erroneous allegations that CSPI would like the public to believe.”

No regulator agency concerned with protecting the public health has stated the chemical is a human carcinogen, she said.

What does CSPI stand to gain, questions countering advocacy group, Center for Consumer Freedom? “Well, CSPI has a history of backing lawsuits against food companies (and failing to win them). With California activists preparing to sue soda manufacturers over 4-MEI under California’s Proposition 65 and trial lawyers in position to reap the whirlwind, perhaps CSPI is looking for some “expert” witness retainers,” it comments.