Caramel Color: Why it’s Still Legal

Surely I’m not the only one who has noticed that caramel coloring is STILL a huge problem in the food industry. Remember just over a year ago, the news broke that this food color (which is found in many sodas, processed foods, desserts…pretty much any processed food with a dark color it would seem) holds its commonplace on many a label. But why is it still on the market, and what is it about caramel coloring that caused such a scare in the first place?

According to The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) website, caramel coloring (which gives foods and beverages that brown, caramel-esque hue), is created “by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites under high pressure and temperature.” Two carcinogens, 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazole, are produced as a by-product of this process. The CPSI reports that “government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats.”

However, WedMD reports of the FDA’s vastly different take on the carcinogenic properties of 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazole. The FDA claims that more research would have to be conducted in order to confirm these two by-products as a danger and also explains that an outrageous quantity of caramel coloring would need to be ingested in order to pose ANY health risks.

The FDA further asserts that caramel coloring does NOT cause cancer. Seems a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? give a great breakdown of what actions are being taken by the Coke and Pepsi companies–two major brands that use the coloring in larger amounts. NRP reports that California labels 4-methylimidazole, an ingredient in caramel coloring, as carcinogenic. The Coca-Cola company took action and took out this ingredient.

Unfortunately, Pepsi products continue to contain levels of 4-methylimidazole that are deemed potentially unsafe by the state of California. I view it this way: if a food additive is processed in an EXTREMELY unnatural way, why would you want to consume it in the first place? At first glance, the information on caramel coloring is too sketchy to draw any definitive conclusions. However, keep in mind that aspartame is STILL widely consumed even though most of us are aware of its dangers. My advice is to limit use of caramel coloring as much as possible especially in its more concentrated form.

Be sure to read labels–I’m absolutely appalled at how frequently caramel coloring is used in processed foods especially frozen dinners. Any food or beverage with a dark hue should be examined if you’re trying to limit exposure. Although we don’t know all of the dangers, why take the risk and continue to consume this coloring in the large quantities that we are today? Start becoming more aware of its absolute saturation in the food industry by reading your labels.



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