Caramel concerns

A debate has been sparked in the United States over the safety of the caramel colouring agent used in cola drinks and other foods. An activist group has called into question the safety of two chemicals in the colouring that may be cancer-causing. Beverage industry groups have called the information ill-informed scare-mongering. While the debate rages it is useful for you to have a handle on what it is about.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the use of artificial caramel colouring which contains the chemicals 2-methylimidazole (2MI) and 4-methylimidiazole (4MI) . The CSPI says that government funded studies have shown these two chemicals to be cancer causing. They claim that mouse based studies have shown them to cause liver, lung, and thyroid cancer as well as leukaemia.

According to the CSPI their concern is with artificial caramel colouring only and not with “real caramel” made by melting sugar. There are four types of artificial colouring and it is two of these that CSPI is questioning. Caramel III amd Caramel IV they claim are the problem colourings.

Caramel III is made with ammonia and is used for beer and soy sauce among other foods. Caramel IV is made with ammonia and sulphites and is used to colour cola and other dark soft drinks. The CSPI say that the cancer causing compounds 2MI and 4MI are made when ammonia and sulphites are reacted under high pressure and temperature with sugars to produce an artificial brown colour. They say that 2MI and 4MI have been clearly shown to cause cancer in animals.

Against this the American Beverage Association (ABA) have claimed that the CSPI is trying to scare consumers without a sound basis in science. They say that 4MI is a by-product of heating and is found in a range of foods including breads, cakes, and coffee. The ABA says that even when it contains minute amounts of 4MI the caramel colour is not a threat to human health and that the FDA has generally classed the caramel colouring as safe.

The FDA is due to review the issue at the end of March 2011. We will watch this space keenly.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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