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Consumer group claims cancer-causing chemical found in colas


March 7, 2012 - Washington

A consumer group in the US has said that laboratory tests found that regular and diet Coke and Pepsi contain "high levels" of a caramel colouring that causes cancer.

The consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest called on officials to ban the use of caramel colouring in popular soft drinks, citing a possible cancer risk.

They said that 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole, which form when sugar is mixed with ammonia and sulfites to create caramel colouring, had been shown to cause lung, liver and thyroid cancer in mice and rats.

In a letter written Monday to FDA Commissioner Dr Margaret Hamburg, CSPI executive director Michael F Jacobson described recent lab analyses that showed 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MI, levels in 12-ounce servings of soda that exceeded the 29 microgram limit recommended by the state of California by nearly five times.

The average 4-MI content for samples of regular and diet Coke, Pepsi and Dr Pepper and Whole Foods 365 cola was 138 micrograms. (Some samples of Dr Pepper and the Whole Foods cola sample had far lower amounts of 4-MI, however.)

The CSPI letter said that the average level of 4-MI indicated a lifetime risk of cancer of five out of 100,000 people in the population - and perhaps more when people who do not drink sodas are left out of the calculation.

"When most people see 'caramel colouring' on food labels, they likely interpret that quite literally and assume the ingredient is similar to what you might get by gently melting sugar in a saucepan. The reality it quite different," the LA Times quoted Jacobson as saying in a statement.

However, food industry groups aren't buying it. On Monday, the American Beverage Association called the CSPI news release a "scare tactic".

"Findings of regulatory agencies worldwide, including the US Food and Drug Administration, European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada, consider caramel colouring safe for use in foods and beverages," it said in a statement.

In 2011 an article on Time magazine's Healthland blog quoted one scientist who said that a human being would have to drink more than 1,000 sodas a day to achieve exposure to 2-MI and 4-MI that had been shown to cause cancer in the lab animals.

On Tuesday, Ben Sheidler, a spokesman forCoca-Cola, responded to the CSPI report.

"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.

"The 4-MEI levels in our products pose no health or safety risks. Outside of California, no regulatory agency concerned with protecting the public's health has stated that 4-MEI is a human carcinogen. The caramel colour in all of our ingredients has been, is and always will be safe," he said.

Jacobson's letter to the FDA had questioned whether any amount of caramel colouring was appropriate.

"The caramel colouring added to soft drinks serves a totally cosmetic function.

"We suspect that most consumers would prefer a clear beverage without an unnecessary carcinogen over a dark-brown beverage with a carcinogen," the letter said.

ANI

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