Making Conversation: The cancerous caramel color

Last week Coca Cola and Pepsi announced they would change the pro­cessing method for the mol­e­cule that gives our favorite soft drinks their caramel color, after Cal­i­fornia placed a chem­ical byproduct of the method on its list of known carcinogens.

According to a study com­mis­sioned by the Center for Sci­ence in the Public Interest (CSPI), Coke, diet Coke, Pepsi and diet Pepsi all con­tain high levels of the byproduct, called 4-​​methylimidazole (4-​​MI). Cal­i­fornia per­formed its own study to deter­mine the “no sig­nif­i­cant risk level” of the mol­e­cule, which came out to 16ug/​day. According to the FDA, one would have to drink 1,000 cans of soda a day to reach that level.

I asked Mike Jacobson, the co-​​founder of CSPI, to com­ment on the issue. Here’s what he had to say:

The FDA used that 1,000-cans-a-day state­ment to ridicule con­cerns about carcinogen-​​contaminated caramel col­oring. Be aware that 30% of the rats got cancer. If, using the FDA number, drinking one can a day would lead to 3 in 10,000 people get­ting cancer, an out­ra­geously high number (I think FDA’s num­bers are wrong, but the point remains).”

Three in 10,000 people? That doesn’t seem out­ra­geously high to me, Mike.

No, it’s not many people, if it doesn’t bother you to have 10,000 people dying for no reason at all. Of course, the sugars in the drinks are far more harmful.”

So readers, what do you think? Is it right to let people die “for no reason at all,” when there is an alter­na­tive that can pro­duce the com­pound safely, even if soda drinkers know the dan­gers of their behavior?

Or is the caramel color debate irrel­e­vant in an era of rising obe­sity and type 2 dia­betes rates? Should CPSI be focusing its efforts else­where, or does every harmful ele­ment we’re exposed to deserve to be recognized?