The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that it would conduct new studies on the safety of caramel coloring in food and drink after a Consumer Reports analysis found that Pepsi One contained excessive levels of a carcinogenic caramel coloring byproduct called 4-methylimidazole, also known as 4-Mel.
4-Mel forms in some caramel coloring during the manufacturing process. It is a known cancer-causing substance that can occur in trace amounts in certain food items when they are introduced to heat.
Consumer Reports’ study, however, found that 4-Mel is present in more than just trace amounts in Pepsi One and another beverage, Goya Malta. A dozen other drinks also contained the substance in small amounts that posed less risk, the study found.
The level of 4-Mel in Pepsi One exceeded the threshold set by California , the only state to mandate cancer warnings on products containing 29 micrograms or more of the toxin. Pepsi One sold in California, however, does not mention the excessive 4-Mel levels on the labeling, prompting Consumer Reports to call for an investigation by the state attorney general.
“We are concerned about both the levels of 4-Mel we found in many of the soft drinks tested and the variations observed among brands, especially given the widespread consumption of these types of beverages, “ said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and Executive Director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “There is no reason why consumers need to be exposed to this avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food and beverages brown.”
The FDA currently sets no limits on the amount of 4-Mel in food and drinks, but said that it would reconsider its rules in light of the Consumer Reports findings.
“These efforts will inform the FDA’s safety analysis and will help the agency determine what, if any, regulatory action needs to be taken,” FDA spokeswoman Juli Putnam said.
A PepsiCo spokesperson told the Associated Press that “the average amount of soda consumed daily by those who drink it is less than the 12-ounce can Consumer Reports used as its basis for measurement.” As a result, she said, people are not exceeding the limit of 29 micrograms a day.
However, the spokesperson could not say how it arrived at its conclusions of daily soda consumption.
Other drinks Consumer Reports tested in its study were Sprite, Diet Coke, Coca-Cola, Coke Zero, Dr Pepper, Dr. Snap, Brisk Iced Tea, A&W Root Beer, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and Goya Malta. The organization said that there were no significant levels of 4-Mel in Sprite and that Coke products contained consistently low levels.