NPR Story
2:41 pm
Thu January 23, 2014

Color Used In Many Sodas Contains Potential Carcinogen

It may not be news that soda is unhealthy, but today, Consumer Reports is saying that in addition to the sugar and empty calories most soda consumers may worry about, they also should be concerned about the color of the soda.

Tests show that the caramel color used to make most sodas brown, contains a potential carcinogen, and one of the the worst offenders is the diet brand Pepsi One.

Dr. Urvashi Rangan of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the findings on the safety of caramel color.

Guest

  • Urvashi Rangan, toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well today, Consumer Reports is warning that certain sodas may not be good for you, and not because they are loaded with calories, but because the caramel coloring that's used to make the sodas brown contains a potential carcinogen. And one of the worst offenders is apparently the diet brand Pepsi One. Joining us is Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist, executive director of the Consumer Reports' Food Safety and Sustainability Center. She's with us from Yonkers, New York. Dr. Rangan, welcome.

DR. URVASHI RANGAN: Thank you so much.

HOBSON: Well, what is this carcinogen, and why is it in these drinks?

RANGAN: This carcinogen or potential carcinogen is 4-MeI or 4-methylimidazole. It's made a - in the - as a byproduct in the manufacturing of certain caramel colors, specifically caramel III and IV. And caramel color is used to color food brown. It's used in a wide array of products, including a lot of soft drinks.

HOBSON: Well, I think some people may be surprised to hear that a drink like Pepsi One has such high levels of this while other diet sodas that look and tastes similar don't.

RANGAN: That's right. We found a really wide variety. In just the 12 brands that we looked at in the market, 11 of which had caramel color, the lowest of which was Coke. Coke came in at about three to five micrograms per 12-ounce can. That was right about at our negligible cancer-risk calculation level. We found levels even up to a hundred times that in Malta Goya, more than 300 micrograms of 4-MeI per 12-ounce serving.

HOBSON: And Malta Goya, for people who don't know, this is a malt beverage that's aimed more at the Latino market, right?

DR. DR. URVASHI RANGAN: That's right. It contains roasted malted caramel in addition to caramel color.

HOBSON: Now, none of these products are in violation of any federal regulations because there are no federal regulations on 4-MeI, right?

RANGAN: That's right. We're actually asking the government as a result of this study to set a standard for 4-MeI and caramel color that would lead to no more than the concentration level we're seeing in Coke at three to five micrograms in a given serving of a product. We're also asking the government to label specific caramel colors on the ingredient list: caramel 1, 2, 3, 4. That's what's required in Europe. We're also asking the government to stop the use of the label natural. We looked at one natural cola. There's many examples, though, of foods and beverages labeled as natural that contained caramel color. The government considers caramel color to be artificial, so we're also asking them to address that problem as well.

HOBSON: And we asked the FDA for a comment on this, and they say, among other things, the FDA has no reason to believe that 4-MeI, at the levels expected in food from the use of caramel colors, possess a health risk to consumers. But what is Pepsi saying about this?

RANGAN: Pepsi is simply talking about how much people drink right now, and that people will only really drink, on average, about a third of a can per day. That's...

HOBSON: Really? A third of a can per day?

RANGAN: That's what Pepsi's analysis of government data asserts. We think that there are a lot of people out there that drink at least one cola, or soda or soft drink a day. And we know from the government data that people even have the propensity to drink more than two servings a day. This is something where many manufacturers have already demonstrated they can do something about. Coke is showing that they can do it. We just want the government to require all manufacturers to do it.

HOBSON: Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. And we'll link you to more information about this at our website, hereandnow.org. Dr. Rangan, thanks for joining us.

RANGAN: Thank you so much.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

And, Jeremy, another reason why plain water is my favorite beverage.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: From NPR News and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

PFEIFFER: And I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. Robin will be back tomorrow, broadcasting from North Carolina. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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