The Common Soda Ingredient That May Up Your Cancer Risk

The caramel color of your favorite sodas? It’s potentially not so good for you.  (Photo: Getty Images) 

More and more, researchers are delving into the health threats of soda pop, and scientists at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) may have found another. According to a new study published online in PLOS One, some types of caramel coloring may give off a potential carcinogen as a byproduct.

The researchers found that roughly 44 to 58 percent of people over age six have at least once can of soda a day, which may expose them to the carcinogen 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), which arises during the manufacturing process for some kinds of caramel coloring.

To figure out just how much 4-MEI an individual might be sipping, the researchers looked at 2014 Consumer Reports data on the concentrations of this byproduct in 12 different soft drinks (11 sodas, 1 ice tea) from two metropolitan areas (New York and California).

There’s been a lot of focus on the unneeded calories in soda, but a past government study showed 4-MEI led to lung tumors in mice and needed a closer look, according to study senior author Keeve Nachman, Ph.D, director of the Food Production and Public Health Program at the CLF and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

So with that in mind, his team calculated the potential increase in cancer risk for all the beverages tested. “It is important to recognize that this is a sampling of just 110 soft drinks, and can’t be interpreted as representing all sodas on the market,”he tells Yahoo Health. “It is a snapshot that was useful of examining risks.”

To measure the overall added lifetime risk of developing cancer, Nachman says the scientists had to figure out what exactly what in the drink, how much each person was reasonably consuming, and the potency of the chemical. They also had to assume that a person stuck to one beverage over the course of their lifetimes, which he says was one limitation of the study.

Overall, Nachman says that 4-MEI levels seem to vary considerably across brands and regions, but his team did see patterns among the concentrations. “For instance, Goya Malta, which is very dark beverage popular in certain communities, no matter where we tested, was unquestionably the highest,”he says.

As a couple examples of the variability, according to Nachman’s analysis, Goya Malta seemed to contribute an extra two cases of cancer per 10,000 people. Diet Coke, on the other hand, added two cases per one million people. Obviously, a big difference, but potentially important information for health officials to utilize.

Nachman says he hopes the FDA uses this new data to tighten up on food and beverage safety requirements. “There is an important opportunity for the FDA to look into this,”he says. “For example, all the caramel colorings do not produce 4-MEI, but two of them do — the ones produced with ammonium compounds.”Eliminating these from the manufacturing process, or setting a standard for acceptable levels of the 4-MEI carcinogen, would be a great for all.

Interestingly, California also seems to have substantially lower levels of 4-MEI in certain drinks than the New York counterparts — for example, Pepsi One, measuring 501.5 μg/L in New York versus the much lower 119.7 μg/L in California. Nachman speculates this might due to California’s Proposition 65 law, the only state in the union to have it, which was enacted specifically to reduce the population’s exposure to potential toxins.

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DeeDee Barker

Writer at The Pluto Daily
Writer/Design/Editor. Born in New Orleans but raised in Philly. DeeDee has been with the Pluto Daily since June 2014.