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By Mia Inqui

The chemical process during the manufacture of the caramel coloring used in soft drinks such as cola produces a carcinogen that could be raising the risk of cancer. Matching laboratory tests conducted by Consumer Reports on 11 different soft drinks showed with an analysis of average consumption by Americans, the researchers found that one can a day could be enough to expose them to potentially cancer-causing levels of the chemical known as 4-MEI (short for 4-methylimidazole).

The potential carcinogen is formed during the manufacture of the familiar caramel color that is added to many widely consumed beverages. This chemical is not needed for taste and it used for beverage color only.

Testing on 110 samples of soda brands carried out by the Consumer Reports researchers, led by a team at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in Baltimore, MD, found that drinks contained levels ranging from 9.5 mcg per liter (mcg/L) to 963 mcg/L.

They add: “Routine consumption of certain beverages can result in 4-MEI exposures greater than 29 mcg a day” – the level that triggers a new case of cancer in every 100,000 people consuming the drink, toxicity that was established by previous studies in mice and rats conducted by the U.S. National Toxicology Program.

Lead author of the study, Tyler Smith, a program officer with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, says 4-MEI levels can “vary substantially across samples, even for the same type of beverage.” Smith explains: In the lab sampling, Malta Goya had the highest 4-MEI concentration while Coca- Cola produced the lowest value.

California listed 4-MEI as a carcinogen in 2011, under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 – better known as Proposition 65. The authors say their results suggest that “federal regulation of 4-MEI in caramel color may be appropriate.”

To estimate consumers’ exposure to the potential carcinogen, the researchers took the laboratory readings and analyzed soft drink consumption using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

They found the proportion of the population consuming each type of soft drink varied, with “colas being the most popular and root beer and pepper colas being the least popular.”