Press Releases

One Year Later, Pepsi Still Contains Cancer-Causing Food Coloring

Update: See Pepsi’s response to the CEH testing following our release.

July 3, 2013

Coke has Changed its Caramel Coloring Nationwide But Outside California Pepsi is Still Using Coloring with High Levels of a Cancer-Causing Chemical

Oakland, CA-More than a year after pledging to clean-up its ingredients to eliminate a cancer-causing chemical, Pepsi purchased from ten states still contains high levels of the carcinogen, according to independent testing commissioned by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH). Last March, both Coca Cola and PepsiCo stated they would be changing their caramel coloring in products nationwide as a result of a California law that requires labels on products with the cancer-causing ingredient. The CEH testing shows that Coke has largely reformulated, but tests on Pepsi products show the company is still using caramel coloring containing the cancer-causing chemical 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI) in all ten products tested from outside of California.

“This shows how California’s Proposition 65 law can make products safer for all Californians, and in some cases for all Americans,” said Michael Green, Executive Director of CEH. “We applaud Coke for taking this health protective action for consumers nationwide. Pepsi’s delay is inexplicable. We urge the company to take swift action to provide all Americans with the same safer product they’re selling in California.”

CEH commissioned an independent lab to conduct 4-MeI testing on Coke and Pepsi products. The nonprofit purchased Coke and Pepsi this May in California, and tests show that both colas have been reformulated in California. In early June, CEH asked ten supporters from across the country to send Coke and Pepsi products purchased in their areas. CEH then sent those products to the lab for testing. The lab tests found little or no 4-MeI in nine out of ten Coke products, but showed high levels of 4-MeI in all ten Pepsi products. Tests show that outside California, Pepsi contains levels of the cancer-causing chemical that are from 4 to more than 8 times higher than California safety levels.

Industrial production of caramel coloring creates 4-MeI as a by-product, but processing changes can reduce or eliminate production of the chemical without altering the coloring. California added 4-MeI to the state list of chemicals known to cause cancer after the National Toxicology Program found “clear evidence” of carcinogenicity of the chemical in animal studies. The CEH testing shows that consumers outside California who drink a single can of Pepsi twice a week are consuming more 4-MEI than the level that triggers a safety warning in California. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 48% of Americans drink soda daily, and that an average soda consumer drinks 2.6 glasses per day.

For more than 16 years, CEH has used California’s Prop 65 consumer protection law to challenge the use of harmful chemicals in hundreds of consumer products, including successfully eliminating health threats to children from lead-tainted baby bibs, arsenic-tainted playground structures, cadmium-tainted jewelry, and many others. A current chemical policy reform proposal in Congress, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), would undermine long-fought health protections that consumers and workers have won and could invalidate California’s Prop 65 law.

Reina Steinzor, a professor of Law at the University of Maryland, recently called the CSIA a “deceptively entitled…misguided effort” to reform federal chemical policies. “Time and again we’ve shown that California’s Prop 65 law is a vital tool for creating safer products for children and families in the state and beyond,” said Green. “Yet the proposal in Congress threatens health protections that we cannot afford to lose. Congress must make major changes to the CSIA if they truly intend to improve chemical safety.”

For more information on CEH’s Coke and Pepsi testing, see  See a chart showing the coke and pepsi results .

In an email to CEH yesterday, PepsiCo Senior Director Aurora Gonzalez stated,

Our caramel coloring suppliers have been working on modifying the manufacturing process to reduce the amount of 4-MEI.  As you know, 4-MEI levels in our products in California are below Prop 65 levels. The rest of the U.S. will be completed by February 2014. In fact, we’ll be starting the process and shipping concentrate end of this year.