Can Your Coca Cola Give You Cancer?

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Can Your Coca Cola Give You Cancer? By Dushyant Krishnan

Dushyant Krishnan is a lawyer interested in food safety and food law. He set up http://foodnetindia.in/, India’s first online destination for food safety, security and food law. foodnetindia’s mission is to educate Indians about food safety. He can be reached at dushyant@foodnetindia.in.

4-Methylimidazole. Ever heard of it? My money is on no. Neither had I till my foodnetindia adventure began. 4-Methylimidazole (4-MEI or 4-MEL) is a chemical present in caramel colour. According to the Wikipedia page on 4-MEI, caramel is the most used food and beverage colouring. It is found in soft drinks, beer, brown bread, chocolates, cookies, gravies, and many other widely consumed food and beverage products. Why am I concerned about 4-MEI? Because there have been studies linking it to cancer.

National Toxicology Program

coca cola drink

A 2007 report by the National Toxicology Program in the United States concluded that 4-Methylimidazole caused lung cancer in male and female mice. It also concluded that the chemical may have been associated with the development of leukemia in female mice. In 2011, the State of California listed 4-MEI as a carcinogen under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better know as Proposition 65. Under the Californian law the ‘No significant risk’ level for 4-MEI is 29 μg/day. Any beverage containing 4-MEI concentrations corresponding to exposure risks greater than 29 μg/day, is required to have warning labels.

Estimated exposure

A 2015 study, led by the Johns Hopkins Centre for a Livable Future, estimated exposure to 4-MEI resulting from soft drink consumption and estimated cancer risk and/or burden associated with exposure. The study analysed soft drinks in California and New York, where unlike California, beverages are not required to display any warning labels regarding 4-MEI. The study found that the concentration of 4-MEI in beverages varied greatly across beverages bought from different areas. However, it was also found that cross-location variability diminished substantially for the same beverages from when they were measured in December 2013, reflecting declines in 4-MEI concentrations in samples purchased in New York. The study concluded that State regulatory standards appear to have been effective in reducing exposure to carcinogens in some beverages, and also recommended Federal regulation of 4-MEI concentrations in caramel colouring.

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Studies or material Coca Cola

As I was unable to locate any studies or material on the 4-MEI content in soft drinks sold in India, I can’t say whether or not Indian cola manufacturers follow the limits set by California in India too. However, the Food Safety and Standards (Food Product Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011, does specify the permissible limits of 4-MEI in food caramel colouring. These regulations specify 200mg per KG to 1000 mg per KG. When translated to what is allowed in a bottle of Cola, this sounds very high to me when compared to the California limits.

Food safety

Since 4-MEI does appear to be a potential food safety hazard, I would limit my soft drink and packaged foods consumption (which I do for other reasons as well, anyway). I would also appeal to the FSSAI to set new limits and impose warning messages on the label for 4-MEI, similar to the California law. Even in the absence of any regulatory compulsions, I think it will be responsible behavior on the part of all manufacturers, not just soft drinks, to voluntarily reduce the amount of 4-MEI (if it exceeds the Californian limits). After all, isn’t it better to err on the side of caution?

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