4-methylimidazole and Killer Cola: all right for you, but not -4-MEI?

Unlike some of her work colleagues (you know who you are), this Kat does not drink Coca-Cola or Pepsi. This may because, as a little Kat, she observed many conversations between her Kat Parents when preparing the weekly shopping list about whether Coca-Cola tastes better in: (a) glass bottles; (b) plastic bottles; or (c) aluminium cans. Despite this, this Kat does feel compelled to tell you about the latest ingredient labelling issues facing Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

As we all know, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi are caramel-coloured fizzy drinks. What you may not know is that this caramel colouring is a result a chemical known as 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI). In California, Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, was enacted as a ballot initiative in November 1986. The Proposition was intended by its authors to protect California citizens and the State's drinking water sources from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and to inform citizens about exposures to such chemicals. Proposition 65 requires the Governor to publish, at least annually, a list of chemicals known to the State to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. On 7 January 2011, the Governor added 4-MEI to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer or other reproductive harm.

In December 2011, a California court ruled that the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment within the California Environmental Protection Agency (OEHHA) properly added the chemical 4-MEI to the list. The warning obligation became effective on 7 January 2012. As a result, anything higher than the State set benchmark of 29-micrograms for 4-MEI in products must carry a cancer warning label.

According to testing undertaken by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a sample of cans of Coca-Cola contained 113-146 micrograms of 4-MEI and cans of Pepsi contained between 145-153 micrograms of 4-MEI. In a Press Release of 5 March 2012, Michael Jacobson, CSPI executive director stated:
'When most people see "caramel coloring" on food labels, they likely interpret that quite literally and assume the ingredient is similar to what you might get by gently melting sugar in a saucepan. The reality is quite different. Colorings made with the ammonia or ammonia-sulfite process contain carcinogens and don't belong in the food supply'.
The American Beverage Association was quick in its condemnation of the CSPI statement. On the same day, 5 March 2012, it issued a Press Release which stated:

'This is nothing more than CSPI scare tactics, and their claims are outrageous. The science simply does not show that 4-MEI in foods or beverages is a threat to human health. In fact, findings of regulatory agencies worldwide, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada, consider caramel coloring safe for use in foods and beverages. CSPI fraudulently claims to be operating in the interest of the public's health when it is clear its only motivation is to scare the American people'.
And on 9 March it issued another Press Release:
'While some media outlets have reported that our member companies are ‘changing their recipes,' this is not the case. Our member companies will still use caramel coloring in certain products, as always. The companies that make caramel coloring for our members' soft drinks are now producing it to meet California's new standard, and it will be used in products nationwide. Consumers will notice no difference in our products and have no reason at all for any health concerns, as supported by FDA and regulatory agencies around the world. In fact, just this week FDA downplayed any health risks, noting that a consumer "would have to drink more than a thousand cans of soda in a day to match the doses administered in studies that showed links to cancer in rodents"'.
The Food and Drug Administration statement referred to has been reported in many outlets as being made by spokesman Douglas Karas. See here for instance.

Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have indicated that the new recipes for their drinks will be rolled out in not only California, but the rest of the US. There were no plans at this stage to change the manufacturing in Europe.

The IPKat gets the feeling that there's the prospect of a branding disaster ahead. If the formulation is so dangerous that it has to be changed, shouldn't it be changed in Europe too? Or is 4-methylimidazole a cancer risk only when consumed in the United States? At least one member of the Kat team does not propose to touch the stuff again till he hears that the formula is changed outside the United States too.

Merpel isn't sure whether fizzy drinks taste better in glass bottles, plastic bottles or aluminium cans -- but she thinks she'll go for glass. She has often heard dreadful tales of things being dissolved in fizzy drinks and she has no wish to drink plastic or aluminium ...
4-methylimidazole and Killer Cola: all right for you, but not -4-MEI? 4-methylimidazole and Killer Cola: all right for you, but not -4-MEI? Reviewed by Catherine Lee on Sunday, March 11, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. "What you may not know is that this caramel colouring is a result of the use of a chemical known as 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI)"

    I truly did not know that. I shall tear up my qualifications, which were clearly earned under false pretenses and go back to school. Hopefully I will learn all about creationism and flat-earth geography.

  2. To Anonymous -- you are obviously very clever, but I've no idea what your problem is. If you are going back to school, make sure they teach you how to make a point in such a way that others can understand it.

  3. 4-methylimidazole is not the colouring agent of caramel. It is an impurity produced as a byproduct during the manufacturing process.

    Chris Torrero

  4. Some people are able to understand my low-level cryptic comment. Well done Chris.

    The Kat may believe such sarcasm is unnecessary and the point could have been made as simply was done by Chris. However, like many people in the medical and scientific community, I am annoyed by people who scare-monger by repeating or mis-quoting scientific facts. Take the recent MMR scare-mongering scandal, which had purportedly well-educated parents running round like headless chickens seeking out individual vaccines rather than the unquestionably safe combination vaccine.

    Even now, 'clever' people are convinced of a link between immunisation and autism and based on anecdotal evidence of one of their 'mumsnet-type' friends, will do their utmost to convince others not to immunise their children.

    My advice is not to write articles on science and health UNLESS you are prepared to research and understand the issues.

  5. There is probably litte need for concern about branding disaster yet. Around here it is reasonably well known that in a blind test with many different kinds of fizzy brown water the winner was a regional cheap brand that is even more region specific than Irn-Bru.

    Even in cases involving several dead babies (a rather horrific story I will spare you all) the brand responsible for the fatal product survived.

  6. I feel that the time has come for me to enter this discussion.

    Anonymous at 11.47 writes " ... like many people in the medical and scientific community, I am annoyed by people who scare-monger by repeating or mis-quoting scientific facts". That is simply not the point. If you are looking after the integrity of a brand, you have to be careful to guard it against not only normal commercial competition and genuine scientific issues but also the results of scare-mongering, myth and unfounded consumer concern. The question is not whether 4-MEI does, might or doesn't cause cancer -- the question is whether purchasers of a product that changes its formulation to address health concerns in one jurisdiction but not others is taking the best care of its brand. While you may be an expert in scientific issues, you are obviously not an expert in consumer behaviour -- which in many instances is quite irrational -- or in brand protection.

  7. I have been reading criticisms of the methodology of this sort of cancer-causing detection test for decades. The underlying basis seems to be that, as there is not enough time to perform tests using realistic dosage levels, tests are instead performed using a high dose over a short time, the assumption being that it is equivalent to a low dose over a long time. This ignores the fact that the human [and animal] body can often dispose of toxic substances as long as the dosage is not excessive.

    On the 1000 can equivalent basis, alcoholic beverages, and even water, would be banned as lethal. Taking a beer at 4% alcohol as a basis, and a 330ml/12oz tin as the unit, 1000 tins of beer contain as much alcohol as 33 litres of spirits of the usual 40% strength, and I am sure that considerably less that 33 litres of spirits taken in 24 hours would be lethal, if it were indeed physically possible to drink that amount of fluid in that time. Even ordinary drinking water is highly toxic if consumed to excess: look up "water intoxication" on Wikipedia for numerous examples of death arising from drinking around 4 litres of water in 2 hours due to upsetting the blood's electrolyte balance.

  8. If I might add a further reflection: in 2010, it was reported that Coca-Cola became the first brand to top £1 bn in UK grocery sale http://www.scotsman.com/news/uk/coke-sales-first-to-top-163-1bn-1-1233382

    If irrational consumer choice following an unfounded scare results in the loss of just one coke drinker out of every 1,000, the loss of sales revenue is likely to be far greater than the cost of making a minor adjustment to the product's formulation which the company is already making elsewhere.

  9. The Kat misunderstands not only my original comment but also my follow up posting. The Kat also appears to misunderstand that the big issue here is about consumer safety and scare-mongering based on a complete lack of understanding, or even attempted understanding, of scientific issues. The issue of brand-protection may exist in the mind of the Kat, but at no point in my comments have I referred to brand protection, nor eluded to it as a relevant issue. My knowledge of consumer behaviour cannot therefore be assessed, let alone criticised.

    Scare-mongering that results in lost sales of cola is one thing, but unfortunately, such articles are commonplace in many areas of health.

  10. My anonymous adversary writes: "The issue of brand-protection may exist in the mind of the Kat, but at no point in my comments have I referred to brand protection, nor eluded to it as a relevant issue". This is the whole point: the Kat's comment was about prudent brand protection. By not mentioning it, you have shown that you have missed what the post was about.

    Incidentally, I think you mean "allude", not "elude". You may blush at leisure under cover of your anonymity.

  11. It is easy to know when an internet argument has been won (all to easily) against IP professionals when they stoop the the depths of picking up on typos.

    A psychologist once noted that statistics prove that arguments frequently turn to analogies with Hitler and the Nazis, but I think we have found a replacement on the typo (or other spelling or grammatical errors).

    By not mentioning brand protection, I have not, as the Kat 'iludes', missed the point of the article. What I have done, is commented on a much more important aspect of the article, which the Kat both fails to appreciate and fails to respond to.

    In my anonymity I shallow neither blush at leisure nor celebrate my glorious victory in forcing the fools mate of "can't spell therefore can't be clever" response.

    If the Kat does not like fair criticism from anonymous sources then I suggest changing the rules of the blog comment section. Such disdain of anonymous postings would fit in well with the position of China, Syria and Egypt et al in recent years. I could also contrive to make an analogy with the Nazi party and how they would have dealt with the internet, but that would only help prove the argument of another.

  12. I don't know why, but I'm reminded of the character Captain Redbeard Rum from Blackadder. "Opinion is divided as to whether Anonymous won the argument. Everyone else says he didn't, Anonymous says he did"


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