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A soft drink ingredient poses cancer risk to consumers

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Researchers found that drinking just one can of caramel-coloured
soft drink a day could expose you to unsafe levels of a possible
carcinogen.

Soft drinks have never been the most nutritious dietary choice, but
new research suggests that an unnecessary colouring ingredient may pose a
cancer risk, even to people who consume an average amount of soda.
The
chemical in question is a byproduct of caramel colour, a common
ingredient that gives colas, root beers and iced teas their dark hue.
During production of caramel colour type III and IV, a chemical known as
4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) can be produced.
And here’s where the problem lies, because 4-MEI has been classified
as possibly carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for
Research on Cancer, as a result of “equivocal evidence of carcinogenic activity in female rats“, but no human studies.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the chemical definitely causes cancer, but the evidence was strong enough that, in 2011,
California ordered that all drinks containing more than a safe level of
4-MEI, set as 29 μg/day, carry a warning label. The safe level of a
chemical is determined by the amount that would cause less than one
cancer case per 100,000 people exposed to it.
Now a team of
researchers, led by the John Hopkins University Centre for a Liveable
Future in the US, has assessed how much soft drink the average American
drinks, and compared this to the levels of 4-MEI in cans of drink to
assess whether the chemical really poses a risk to the average American
consumer.
Publishing in PLOS ONE, they found
that between 44 and 58 percent of people over the age of six in the US
drink at least one can of soft drink every day on average. And given
this rate of ‘average consumption’, they conclude that average soda
drinkers could potentially be exposed to unsafe levels of 4-MEI over a
lifetime.
“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,” said Keeve Nachman,
senior author of the study, in a press release. “This
unnecessary exposure poses a threat to public health and raises
questions about the continued use of caramel colouring in soda.”
Their research built on a previous study
they’d done with Consumer Reports in 2013 and 2014. Over those two
years, the team analysed 110 soft drinks bought in either California
(where a warning label must be used above certain 4-MEI levels) or New
York. 
 
Altogether they looked at 11 different types of soft
drinks, all in can form, except for Goya Malta, a carbonated and,
according to the brand’s website, “nutritious”, malt drink, which is
only sold in glass bottles.

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The team admits that it didn’t look at
enough soft drink samples to make any recommendations about which
particular brands of soft drink have lower levels than others (you can
see the full table
in their paper, but keep in mind that these results definitely need to
be replicated), but it did show that 4-MEI levels can vary greatly from
can to can, even in the same type of soft drink.
“For example, for
diet colas, certain samples had higher or more variable levels of the
compound, while other samples had very low concentrations,” said Tyler
Smith, another lead researcher, in the release.
The
team has now submitted their results to the US Food and Drug
Administration, in the hopes it will set some national limits for how
much 4-MEI can be present in drinks.
“This new analysis
underscores our belief that people consume significant amounts of soda
that unnecessarily elevate their risk of cancer over the course of a
lifetime,” said Urvashi Rangan, the executive director for Consumer
Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Centre, in a press release. “We believe beverage makers and the government should take the steps needed to protect public health.”

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