Consumer Reports Finds Potential Carcinogens in Soda's Caramel Coloring

Everyone knows at this point that soda isn't great for your health, but now, it turns out even its color is toxic. That pretty golden-brown color in your Diet Coke comes from a chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), known in many cases as "caramel coloring." And according to a new Consumer Reports study, 11 popular sodas have tested for a potential carcinogen at levels exceeding those scientists consider to be safe. Now, 4-Mel is currently being investigated by the FDA to see if any regulatory action needs to be taken.

As it stands, 4-Mel isn't federally regulated, which means that indications of the chemical can show up in different ways around the country: Even if California Pepsi One shows up at high carcinogen levels (which it does), New York City doesn't have to put its warning levels for the compound on its soda labels. Across the board, however, Coca-Cola products have a relatively low level of 4-mel, while Whole Foods' Dr. Snap has a relatively high one. The drinks tested were Sprite, Diet Coke, Coca-Cola, Coke Zero, Dr Pepper, Dr. Snap, Brisk Iced Tea, A&W Root Beer, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Pepsi One and Goya Malta. No significant level of 4-Mel was found in Sprite, and lower levels were found in Coke products than in Pepsi.

"There is no reason why consumers need to be exposed to this avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food and beverages brown," said Consumer Reports toxicologist Dr. Urvashi Rangan.

Consumer Reports is pushing for greater regulation of 4-Mel, which is also found in barbecue sauce, soups, soy sauce, and gravy. Until then, it might be best for consumers who want to avoid carcinogens to avoid this caramel-colored food altogether: "We just don't think coloring your food brown should give you cancer," Rangan said.