4-Methylimidazole (4-Mel) is a compound that is formed in the manufacturing of caramel colouring, which is used in junk food products like fizzy drinks, and it is known to potentially increase the risk of cancer.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently published a study that revealed just how high this potential cancer risk is, especially at the levels of 4-methylimidazole found in popular fizzy drinks like Pepsi and Coke.
In 2014, 14.8 billion litres of fizzy drinks were consumed in the UK. So, because children and adults alike are gulping down copious amounts of bubbly artificial liquids without a realistic sense of the health consequences, this study’s results will hopefully be an eye-opener to the risk you are exposing yourself to each time you drink a caramel-coloured fizzy drink.
The researchers estimated that there could be up to 5,000 cases of cancer over the next 70 years solely due to exposure to 4-Mel… and that is in the US alone.
This latest study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, is a follow-up from a previous study conducted in 2013, which found that popular fizzy drinks – Pepsi in particular – contained anywhere from 3.4 to 352.5 micrograms of 4-Mel in each 12-ounce (340ml) bottle or can, which exceeds the US permitted level of 29 micrograms per 340ml bottle or can.
Commenting on the results lead researcher Keeve Nachman, director of the Food Production and Public Health Programme, said: “Consumers are being exposed to an avoidable and unnecessary cancer risk from an ingredient that is being added to these beverages simply for aesthetic purposes. This unnecessary exposure poses a threat to public health and raises questions about the continued use of caramel colouring in soda [fizzy drinks].”
In the wake of the release of these studies’ results, as expected, fizzy drinks manufacturers went on the defence. In fact, Pepsi went so far as to deny both the presence of 4-methylimidazole in its beverages and the fact that it posed a cancer risk.
However, since then Pepsi has been taken to court and the company settled a class action lawsuit that accused the company of failing to warn people that its beverages contain high levels of 4-Mel. Pepsi argued that the average amount of fizzy drinks its customers consume daily is less than a can and that there was no need to place a warning on their products.
Fortunately, Pepsi’s arguments did not sit well with the courts and the company had to agree to lower the levels of 4-Mel in their fizzy drinks… However this only applied to fizzy drinks distributed in the US.
No such change has yet been adopted in Britain or the rest of the world.
Coca-Cola continues to strenuously deny there is any human health risk from 4-Mel and also claims that no food safety watchdog in Britain and Europe has assessed it as a concern. The drink complies fully with European laws.
According to a 2013 Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research report, 4-Methylimidazole caramel colouring is the world’s most widely used food colouring and researchers at the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, found that the amount of 4-Mel found in British cans of Coca-Cola is 135 micrograms – 34 times higher than that permitted in the US.
Apart from the high sugar content in the fizzy drinks and their associated risk of obesity it simply does not make sense for people to expose themselves unnecessarily to an ingredient that merely serves to colour their food. Consumers have the right to be aware of what they are putting in their bodies… especially when it involves a potential risk of cancer.
So, at the very least these caramel coloured fizzy drinks should carry a cancer warning.
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Call to ban cola ingredient linked to cancer, published online 26.06.2012, telegraph.co.uk
Fresh health fears over caramel colouring used in fizzy drinks, including Coca Cola: Company vows to reduce amount of chemicals that may cause cancer, published online 24.01.2014, dailymail.co.uk
Pepsi admits its soda contains cancer-causing ingredients, published online 17.09.2016, complete-health-and-happiness.com/