Could Your Favorite Soda Give You Cancer?

Photo (cc) by fimoculous

Americans’ soda habit poses a public health threat, thanks to caramel coloring added to many dark beverages, a Johns Hopkins researcher says.

While the potential downsides of too much soda are hardly new news, a recent study published in the journal Plos One states that it’s the first peer-reviewed study to assess soda drinkers’ exposure to 4-methylimidazole or its associated cancer risk.

This byproduct, also known as 4-MEI, is a potential carcinogen formed during the manufacturing of some kinds of caramel coloring, according to a press release from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Soft drink 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,” says senior study author Keeve Nachman, director of the Food Production and Public Health Program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “This unnecessary exposure poses a threat to public health and raises questions about the continued use of caramel coloring in soda.”

The study

The new research builds on data collected in 2013 and 2014, when the Center for a Livable Future partnered with Consumer Reports to analyze the concentration of 4-MEI in samples from sodas purchased in California and the New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey and Connecticut.

Researchers also incorporated data on beverage consumption from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and data on population characteristics from the U.S. Census Bureau

Twelve sodas were analyzed. Sprite, which does not contain caramel coloring and was not found to have a measurable concentration of 4-MEI, was dropped after initial analysis. The other 11 drinks are:

  • 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods’ house brand) Dr. Snap (regular)
  • A&W root beer (regular)
  • Brisk lemon iced tea
  • Coca Cola (regular), Diet Coke, Coca Cola Zero
  • Dr. Pepper (regular)
  • Goya Malta
  • Pepsi (regular), Diet Pepsi, Pepsi One

The findings

The sodas with the highest average concentrations of 4-MEI across all samples were Goya Malta (945.5 micrograms per liter), Pepsi One (246.9) and Pepsi (183.6).

Those with the lowest were regular Coca-Cola (11.7), Coke Zero (10.3) and Diet Coke (9.8).

The drinks that scored the highest for exposure to 4-MEI, as measured in what’s called the lifetime average daily dose, were generally the same drinks that scored highest for concentration of 4-MEI.

For example, under average exposure conditions, Malta Goya, followed by the three Pepsi beverages and Dr. Snap, were associated with the highest lifetime average daily doses. The Coca-Cola varieties were associated with the lowest.

The findings for cancer risk “mirrored” those of exposure, as the study put it.

Proposition 65

The federal government does not currently limit the amount of 4-MEI that manufacturers can add to foods and drinks, according to Consumer Reports.

However, California has instituted limits. In 2011, the state labeled 4-MEI a carcinogen under its Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as Proposition 65. A product sold in California that falls into that category must be labeled with a cancer risk warning if the product exposes consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MEI per day on average.

That’s why researchers purchased soda samples from California and a separate region, and 4-MEI concentrations did vary for some drinks, with the California samples associated with lower levels.

“It appears that regulations such as California’s Proposition 65 may be effective at reducing exposure to 4-MEI from soft drinks, and that beverages can be manufactured in ways that produce less 4-MEI,” Nachman says. “An FDA intervention, such as determining maximum levels for 4-MEI in beverages, could be a valuable approach to reducing excess cancer risk attributable to 4-MEI exposure in the U.S. population.”

Federal food label laws

Not all dark beverages contain 4-MEI, but Consumers Reports says shoppers can’t tell the difference, thanks to federal food labeling laws overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Manufacturers use four different kinds of caramel coloring, some of which contain 4-MEI. Federal law does not require manufacturers to specify which kind of coloring they put into a soda, however.

That means the ingredient lists on drinks containing any caramel color can identify the additive by name or categorically, such as “artificial coloring.”

To learn more about food labeling laws, check out When Foods Go ‘Natural’ — Does That Really Make Them Healthier?

Of course, the FDA does not currently consider 4-MEI an immediate public health risk.

“Based on the available information, FDA has no reason to believe that there is any immediate or short-term danger presented by 4-MEI at the levels expected in food from the use of caramel coloring,” the agency’s website states.

Will you take your chances to continue drinking soda? Share your thoughts on this study in a comment below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
Top 5 Activities That People Dream of Doing in Retirement
Top 5 Activities That People Dream of Doing in Retirement

No. 1 isn’t visiting grandkids, and No. 4 might surprise you.

Don’t Pay for These 10 Things: They Are Free With a Library Card
Don’t Pay for These 10 Things: They Are Free With a Library Card

Before you spend another dollar on items and services like these, check with your public library.

15 Free Streaming Services to Watch While Stuck at Home
15 Free Streaming Services to Watch While Stuck at Home

These free streaming video services offer thousands of movies and TV shows, including recent releases and beloved classics.

Eat This Food If You Want to Avoid Alzheimer’s Disease
Eat This Food If You Want to Avoid Alzheimer’s Disease

One type of food associated with the Mediterranean diet offers especially large benefits.

Big-Ticket Things You Should Never Buy
Big-Ticket Things You Should Never Buy

In this week’s podcast: Are you wasting big money on these common purchases?

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco
11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco

This leader in bulk shopping is a great place to find discounts in the fixed-income years.

Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines
Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines

Fall is the time to schedule vaccines that can keep you healthy — and even save your life.

11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older
11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older

There is no need to wait until you’re 65 to take advantage of so-called “senior” discounts.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies
8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies

In this age of higher-priced drugs and complex health care systems, a trip to the pharmacy can spark worry. Freebies sure do help.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America
The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America

A new model parks atop the list of vehicles that thieves love to pilfer.

9 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday
9 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday

These items are all steeply discounted — but the deals won’t last long.

7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast
7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast

Your financial security might soon depend upon the strength of your credit score.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

These jobs pay more than the typical job in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required.

10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62
10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62

If you can, here are several good reasons to retire earlier than we’re told to.

5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free
5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free

Hesitant to drop $119 a year on an Amazon Prime membership? Here’s how to get it for free.

Do This in the Car If You Want to Avoid COVID-19
Do This in the Car If You Want to Avoid COVID-19

It takes just seconds to take this simple preventive measure.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

15 Products You Need — Even If You Didn’t Know It
15 Products You Need — Even If You Didn’t Know It

Discover some must-have products on Amazon that you didn’t even know you were missing.

5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles
5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles

Pushing your car to 200,000 miles — and beyond — can save you piles of cash. Here’s how to get there.

26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income
26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income

These states won’t tax any of your Social Security income — and in some cases, other types of retirement income.

14 Things That Are ‘Free’ With Medicare
14 Things That Are ‘Free’ With Medicare

These services could save you money and help prevent costly health problems.

5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees
5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees

Retirees agree: These are the things that give them purpose and fulfillment in their golden years.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.