The caramel color found in cola drinks such as Coca-Cola is contaminated with carcinogens, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit consumer advocacy group.
The type of caramel coloring used for sodas isn’t what might come to mind when you think of the word “caramel.” Instead of simply melted or cooked sugar, “type IV” caramel coloring, the type used in sodas, is a combination of ammonium and sulfite compounds.
According to the CSPI’s report, this production method results in the creation of 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole, both of which are carcinogens, cancer-causing agents shown to promote lung, liver and thyroid tumors in laboratory tests on mice and rats.
Here’s the million-dollar question, though: How much should we care?
Cancer is obviously a terrible and pervasive disease. But the running punchline with studies on carcinogens is that seemingly everything causes cancer. Am I seriously supposed to consider the fact that Wendy’s french fries are known to have carcinogens as a result of their browning in oil? That’s probably the last point on a long list of things I should worry about when eating fast-food fries.
Though the threat of carcinogenic foods might be very real, it seems consumers would benefit from taking a step back to analyze such news, rather than immediately buying into researchers’ findings.
It’s easy to get sucked into this type of consumer-as-victim news. My dad, for instance, always loves to spread the latest news of common consumer products resulting in illness or death. He called me last week, knowing that I had long ago taken a liking to Diet Cokes.
I figure there have got to be others like my dad out there, so, for the sake of unsure or misinformed consumers everywhere, this news needs to be put into context.
Although lab findings of tests performed on animals can be informative, the bottom line is still that humans aren’t mice (or rats). A laboratory researcher will point out that mice and rats work quite well as human analogues, as we have many of the same methods of processing chemicals and so forth.
But even assuming this is true, there are usually very significant differences between the tested experiences of lab animals and real human experiences.
The CPSI found statistically significant results in the group of “high-dose” male mice, which received a daily average dose of 170 milligrams of 4-methylimidazole per kilogram of body weight. The tests were conducted for 106 weeks.
If I had gone through the test, considering my body weight of around 73 kilograms, to achieve the same statistically significant results, I would have had to take an average dose of 12,410 milligrams of 4-MEI daily. Taking into account the average 20- ounce bottle of cola has about 200 micrograms of 4-MEI in it, I would have had to drink 62,050 20-ounce bottles of Diet Coke every day for 106 weeks to replicate test results.
And this is assuming that I react the same way as a mouse.
By so urgently and insistently connecting caramel food coloring to cancer, the CPSI is not simply raising awareness of a potential problem. It is fueling the “everything causes cancer” punchline, with the side effect being that jaded eaters stop caring about the truly important specifics of what’s in their food.
The presence of carcinogens in our cola is an important problem, but hitting the panic button without a balanced and realistic analysis, as the CPSI and various news outlets seem to be doing, is irresponsible. In all likelihood, it’s that tasty high-fructose corn syrup that’s going to kill you, not 4-MEI.
Even Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the CPSI, conceded that.
“Because 2- and 4-methylimidazole do not appear to be highly potent carcinogens, the 10 teaspoons of obesity-promoting high-fructose corn syrup in a can of cola should still be considered a much greater health risk,” he wrote on the Huffington Post.
Sometimes, it’s hard to draw the line for what news about food we should care about. We as consumers should strive to keep food manufacturers honest and accountable. But the subject of carcinogens often requires perspective. Should we be notifying our friends that our grilled burgers “might cause cancer” because they were cooked over a flame, which can create carcinogens, as well?
Like it or not, eating well requires thought and awareness. It pays to know who is making your food and how they’re making it. But it also pays to know when to not sweat the small stuff. The most recent caramel-color-cancer story is shocking and a great headline, but not much more.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I could go for a Diet Coke right about now.
Eddie Kim is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. His column, “Food As Life,” runs Thursdays.