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August 2015

The Dark Side of Caramel-Colored Soda

Soda. Pop. Cola. Across the country, people have different names for the same carbonated beverages. No matter what you call them, they aren’t healthy. In fact, they’ve been linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A recent study suggests drinking too much of some of them could also cause cancer.

Two glasses of cola with ice

Toxins in a can?

A caramel coloring gives cola, root beer, and other dark-colored soft drinks their hue. The additive may also add 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) to those beverages. 4-MEI is a chemical byproduct. It’s created during the making of some types of caramel coloring.

Some experts think 4-MEI may be a carcinogen. They base their reasoning on past animal studies. In those, exposure to high levels of the chemical was linked to lung tumors and blood cancer. But it isn’t clear if 4-MEI may be toxic to humans.

In PLosOne, researchers set out to see if drinking soda with 4-MEI might raise a person’s risk for cancer. They analyzed the amount of 4-MEI in a sample of soft drinks. They bought half of the beverages from California and the other half from New York. California requires a warning label on soft drinks that have more than 29 micrograms of 4-MEI. That level may make the beverages unsafe.

Testing showed higher amounts of 4-MEI in drinks from the New York area, where the chemical isn’t regulated. Some levels were even above 29 micrograms. Using these test results and data on soft drink consumption in the U.S., the researchers were able to calculate an exposure level. They found that people who regularly drink dark-colored soda may face a higher risk for cancer.

The soda situation

For now, the FDA is keeping an eye on 4-MEI in soft drinks. It currently deems the levels in such beverages too low to be of concern. Plus since California passed a law on 4-MEI, many companies have cut down on the chemical in their soft drinks. Different ways of making the caramel coloring can limit how much 4-MEI is made.

But until more is known about how 4-MEI may affect the human body, it may still be wise to cut back on dark-colored soft drinks. As a consumer, you can’t easily tell if your soda contains 4-MEI. Not all artificial colorings have it. In general, stay away from products that list artificial color on their food labels.

Better yet, consider cutting out all types of soda from your diet. Soft drinks add lots of calories with little nutrition. The sugar in them can lead to weight gain. That in turn may put you at risk for diabetes and heart disease. They can also have high amounts of caffeine—a potential sleep stealer.

A recent survey shows many Americans are drinking fewer soft drinks overall. Unfortunately, they may be simply replacing them with other sugar-sweetened beverages, such as energy drinks. The best thirst-quencher: water or some other low-calorie beverage.


Certain foods may help prevent cancer. Read about them here.


Online resources



Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 7/28/2015
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