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Killer Caramel – Coke and Pepsi may stop trying to poison you

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 16, 2012

So it seems that Coke and Pepsi, among others have apparently been feeding us cancer causing chemicals in the guise of caramel colouring. It seems that California passed a good consumer law in 1986 that aims to protect state residents from “chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and to inform citizens about exposures to such chemicals.”

This law works kind of weirdly, a citizen can petition to have something (a chemical in this case) placed on the banned or restricted list. One mechanism of enforcement is via a law suit brought on by a private partner acting in the public interest. In this case the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is suing so that the beverage makers abide by the government guide lines.

Apparently the caramel colouring that makes Coke look like Pepsi contains a chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-MI or 4-MEI). The California environmental guidelines say that the cans should contain only 29 micrograms. A recent sampling by Center for Science in the Public Interest showed cans to contain as much as 153 micro grams…over the limit by quite a bit. The guidelines though are regarded as overly tight; ergo why they have not been enforced. I suspect the political deadlock for the reason the limits not being changed. That my research did not uncover.

What it did find out though was the original research that caused 4MEI to be listed as a carcinogen in the first place. The study, done I think around 2006, showed that this chemical is linked to some types of cancer in rats at doses as low 15mg/kg. That would be about 1.3 grams for the average person per day.

Of course if you do the math, one has to wonder if this might be a case of being overly cautious. Now, I acknowledge that our bio-chemist is off on sabbatical so my take on this might be off slightly.

The study lasted a little over 2 years at which time the rats involved were dissected for cancers and other medical conditions. It was discovered that rats that consumed the 15/mg a day were adversely affected. i.e. that was the level that it was dangerous to inject this chemical. If we convert that amount though to cans of coke, we find the rats were drinking the equivalent of 98 cans a day

Now, the numbers that have been bantered about by the FDA and the American Beverage Association are a lot higher…almost 3000 cans a day…because the study used variable doses on different groups as well as a control group. At the largest dose tested, the rats were effectively drinking the thousands of cans per day, but the number I am using seems to be the minimal amount needed to have some effect. Regardless of which numbers you use, still seems like a lot of pop to me.

WiFi Hysteria

Okay, but should we not err on the side of safety…i.e. better overly cautious than under-cautious? Yes and no. As you all know, I am not fan of corporations…do not think the interests of the company are equal to the interests of the society…but. There is a point where we have to worry about crying wolf. We recently decried the attempts by some to ban Wi-Fi from schools because it (electro-magnetic radiation) is listed by the UN as a possible carcinogen. Like when atheist become racist, we in the skeptical community must be just as vigilant policing “our own” as we are THEM (whoever that may be).

I note that the CSPI Interest though does seem to be a decent resource. They do think any chemical is bad…they are not a fan of caffeine (can keep you awake), any and all forms of sugar (will make you fat) or salt (we eat a lot more than you would think).

So, perhaps this post is not intended to condemn the actions of the CSPI, but to use this instance as a cautionary tale that not all smoke leads to fire. Of course, as new research comes out, I may reverse my support…as any good skeptic should do when evidence leads to an updated conclusion.

In fact, as I reach the end of this post I think I can explain why this bothered me. The real question or fight is not 4-MEI allowed but why the FDA and other regulatory agencies are not enforcing the existing limit?

As my readers know I do not trust corporations and think regulatory agencies are necessary. But for regulation to work they must be enforced…and those agencies task with oversight should be doing their job. The fight should be getting the FDA to do its job and stop being a shill for Coke and Pepsi.

Am I wrong?

2 Responses to “Killer Caramel – Coke and Pepsi may stop trying to poison you”

  1. While I agree that over-regulating things like this (i.e. restricting the amount of a chemical that must be consumed at huge volumes to have an impact) is unnecessary, and may be a waste of time and resources. However, do these corporations really have that much to lose by removing some or all of the chemical? There may or may not be some societal lashing out over a change to the color of the ‘classic’ varieties, but just by removing one additive it probably would reduce some cost (possibly minimal; I don’t know how much these things truly cost to produce), and would probably get the CSPI off their backs (at least temporarily).

  2. Windy Daley said

    Giving up sodas may be the single most important decision that a human can do for healthy living. Sodas are sugars (usually synthetic high fructose corn syrup) and chemicals that do not help the body with any real nutritional value.

    Life is too short to be an addicted slave of the soda companies. We must love our children enough to feed them real foods.

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