The chemical 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MeI, is often used in sodas, where it appears on ingredients labels as “caramel coloring.” But studies have shown that this chemical used in many dark-colored beverages can cause cancer, leading the state of California to limit manufacturers to 29 micrograms of exposure to the compound per day for the average consumer. Companies that fail to comply with this rule will have to label their products, “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer.” In response, soda manufacturers, such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, have reformulated their products sold in California to reduce the amount of the chemical used.
However, as Consumer Reports recently found, still not all sodas comply with the California regulation. Researchers for the magazine tested 29 beverages in California and New York that had exceeded 29 mcg of 4-MeI in prior tests performed earlier in 2013. They found that most of the drinks had their amounts of caramel color significantly reduced, but Pepsi One and Malta Goya still exceeded the limit, and neither of them carried the required warning labels.
Consumer Reports additionally found that Pepsi One purchased in New York had four times as much 4-MeI as Pepsi One purchased in California. The tested beverages in New York did have reduced amounts of the chemical though, indicating a positive step for the soda industry.
When Consumer Reports asked PepsiCo to comment on their findings, the company defended their formula, saying that, because the average person consumes less than one-third of a can of diet soda per day, their product meets California’s standard. Based on this fundamentally flawed reasoning, their product can have nearly 90 mcg of 4-MeI per serving. The only way that this justification would make sense is if the majority of Pepsi One drinkers literally open the can, drink a third of it and then save the rest for the next two days, which obviously is not the case.
Consumer Reports said that their policy and action arm, Consumers Union, will alert the California Attorney General’s office and will petition the FDA to set a federal standard on 4-MeI and require companies to be more specific about the type of caramel coloring they use. The FDA does not recognize that 4-MeI used in foods at current levels poses a risk to human health; they are however reviewing safety data and testing foods and sodas for the chemical.