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Call for cola colouring ban

6th March 2012

Researchers have discovered that a chemical used to give the caramel-colour to cola-type drinks caused cancer in animals when tested in a laboratory.


The tests, which were commissioned by a consumer group, have led to calls for the banning of the chemical, which is used in popular colas including Coke and Pepsi.

The fizzy drinks get their caramel colouring, which has nothing to do with real caramel, and is formed from a process linked to ammonia, from the chemical, which is known as 4-methylimidazole or 4-MI.

4-MI has been shown to cause cancer in toxicology studies on animals, no studies have yet been carried out to test whether it is also a specific human carcinogen.

However, the results have already led to a call from the US Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban this kind of caramel colouring.

The CSPI has also called for the additive to be renamed to make it clear that it is a chemical, and not a natural, caramel colouring.

It said the names: "chemically modified caramel colouring" or "ammonia-sulphite process caramel colouring" would be more appropriate.

According to CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, the FDA is acquiescing in the use of a chemical that causes cancer by large drinks companies Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

4-MI was found to be present in Coca-Cola and Pepsi products in quantities that added up to millionths of a gramme per can of drink.

According to CSPI, the levels are many times higher than a still-disputed limit set by environmental health officials in California.

The FDA replied to CSPI's statement by saying that it was working with manufacturers to find out how much of the chemical they were actually putting in their drinks.

It has tried to play down suggestions by CSPI that the additive is causing cancer in thousands of Americans who drink a lot of cola.

In order to get the same amount of 4-MI that were given to the rats in the CSPI-backed tests, a person would have to drink more than 1,000 cans of soda every day, the agency said.

More of a threat than 4-MI is the high-fructose corn syrup that is present in many soft drinks, the CSPI says, because it promotes obesity.

Coca-Cola responded by calling CSPI's petition to the FDA "irresponsible" because it insinuates that the caramel used in the company's drinks was dangerous and "malicious" because it raised concerns of cancer among customers.

It cited studies as showing that 4-MI did not cause cancer, but without elaborating, adding that CSPI's actions did a disservice to its founding philosophy.

The American Beverage Association, an industry group, also defended the use of 4-MI, saying the CSPI was employing "scare tactics" and had made "outrageous" claims.

It also said scientific research had proved the colouring was not a threat to human health.

In the CSPI study, researchers looked at cans of cola taken from shops in the Washington, D.C. area, and found they contained nearly 140 micrograms of 4-MI, compared with a 29 microgram limit set by the state of California.

The FDA has set its own limit for 4-MI in colourings at 250 parts per million. The cola tested by CSPI only contained up to 0.4 parts per million.


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