The caramel color of your favorite sodas? It’s potentially not so good for you. (Photo: Getty Images)
More and more, researchers are delving into the health threats of soda pop, and scientists at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) may have found another. According to a new study published online in PLOS One, some types of caramel coloring may give off a potential carcinogen as a byproduct.
The researchers found that roughly 44 to 58 percent of people over age six have at least once can of soda a day, which may expose them to the carcinogen 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), which arises during the manufacturing process for some kinds of caramel coloring.
To figure out just how much 4-MEI an individual might be sipping, the researchers looked at 2014 Consumer Reports data on the concentrations of this byproduct in 12 different soft drinks (11 sodas, 1 ice tea) from two metropolitan areas (New York and California).
There’s been a lot of focus on the unneeded calories in soda, but a past government study showed 4-MEI led to lung tumors in mice and needed a closer look, according to study senior author Keeve Nachman, Ph.D, director of the Food Production and Public Health Program at the CLF and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
So with that in mind, his team calculated the potential increase in cancer risk for all the beverages tested. “It is important to recognize that this is a sampling of just 110 soft drinks, and can’t be interpreted as representing all sodas on the market,”he tells Yahoo Health. “It is a snapshot that was useful of examining risks.”
To measure the overall added lifetime risk of developing cancer, Nachman says the scientists had to figure out what exactly what in the drink, how much each person was reasonably consuming, and the potency of the chemical. They also had to assume that a person stuck to one beverage over the course of their lifetimes, which he says was one limitation of the study.
Overall, Nachman says that 4-MEI levels seem to vary considerably across brands and regions, but his team did see patterns among the concentrations. “For instance, Goya Malta, which is very dark beverage popular in certain communities, no matter where we tested, was unquestionably the highest,”he says.
As a couple examples of the variability, according to Nachman’s analysis, Goya Malta seemed to contribute an extra two cases of cancer per 10,000 people. Diet Coke, on the other hand, added two cases per one million people. Obviously, a big difference, but potentially important information for health officials to utilize.
Nachman says he hopes the FDA uses this new data to tighten up on food and beverage safety requirements. “There is an important opportunity for the FDA to look into this,”he says. “For example, all the caramel colorings do not produce 4-MEI, but two of them do — the ones produced with ammonium compounds.”Eliminating these from the manufacturing process, or setting a standard for acceptable levels of the 4-MEI carcinogen, would be a great for all.
Interestingly, the researchers found that California also seems to have substantially lower levels of 4-MEI in certain drinks than the New York counterparts — for example, in the study, the researchers found that Pepsi One, measuring 501.5 μg/L in New York versus the much lower 119.7 μg/L in California. Nachman speculates this might due to California’s Proposition 65 law, the only state in the union to have it, which was enacted specifically to reduce the population’s exposure to potential toxins.
According to Pepsi, the study contains outdated information. “The 4-MEI figures reported in this study do not reflect what is currently available in the U.S. marketplace. Today all Pepsi products in the United States meet California’s Prop 65 requirements, said the company in a statement to Yahoo Health. That magic number is 29 μg per day of 4-MEI. All Coke sodas also fall beneath the level of 4-MEI.
Nachman says laws like this in all states might help ensure more consumer safety. “In the meantime, if you’re the average person and you’re concerned, you can switch to clear beverages or limit your soda consumption,”he says. (The team also tested Sprite, which as they expected, had no 4-MEI.)
If you do want to scale back your soda intake, it’s not a bad idea, says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. “My view has always been that soft drinks are extra calories with no nutritional benefit,”she says. “And the best way to cut back is gradually.”
If that means you cut back one can per week until you’ve eliminated soda, so be it. Slow and steady progress is best. “The bigger question, though, is what do you replace it with?”Gans says. “Most people like the carbonation. Try using seltzer water, and flavor it with fresh fruit like a squeeze of lemon or lime. You can also use a quarter cup of 100-percent fruit juice and a three-quarter cup of your sparkling water.”
If you’re a soda fan for the caffeine, Gans suggests a switch to coffee or tea. “Green tea, black tea, or a coffee with a flavored roast,”she says. “With all the flavors out there right now, there’s guaranteed to be something you’ll like. I’ve also found that many times, if you’re in need of that caffeine lift, taking a look at your sleep habits is a good place to start. If you aren’t getting enough sleep and use soda as your boost, simply getting more rest may eliminate your ‘need’for soda.”
With tons of alternatives, you probably don’t need as much soda as you think you do. And in case you’re wondering, here’s the worst to best rankings of the sodas Nachman’s team looked into. Just remember: it was a small sample used to assess risk, and can’t be considered a representative of all soda drinks, but important to consider nonetheless.
Worst to Best Soft Drinks Based on 4-MEI Concentrations (in μg/L)
New York - Goya - Malta - 915.8
California - Goya - Malta - 963.3
New York - Pepsi - One - 501.5 *product now contains less than 29 μg/l
New York - Pepsi - Diet - 304.5 *product now contains less than 29 μg/l
New York - Pepsi - Regular - 291.2 *product now contains less than 29 μg/l
California - Pepsi - One - 119.7 *product now contains less than 29 μg/l
New York - Everyday Value - Dr. Snap Regular - 92.6
California - Pepsi - Diet - 78.4 *product now contains less than 29 μg/l
California - Pepsi - Regular - 75.9 *product now contains less than 29 μg/l
California - A&W - Root Beer - 68.2
New York - A&W - Root Beer - 61.8
New York - Brisk - Lemon Iced Tea - 47.0 *product now contains less than 29 μg/l
California - Brisk - Lemon Iced Tea - 46.0 *product now contains less than 29 μg/l
California - Everyday Value - Dr. Snap Regular - 29.6
California - Dr. Pepper - Regular - 28.4
New York - Dr. Pepper - Regular - 27.5
California - Coca Cola - Regular - 12.1
New York - Coca Cola - Regular - 11.3
California - Coca Cola - Zero - 10.8
New York - Coca Cola - Diet Coke - 10.2
New York - Coca Cola - Zero - 9.7
California - Coca Cola - Diet Coke - 9.5
California - Sprite - Regular - 0.0
New York - Sprite - Regular - 0.0