Would A Coke By Any Other Color Taste As Sweet?

I haven’t had a  Coke in years. My parents kept a soda-free kitchen, so as a young child I didn’t know what Coke tasted like. Once at a birthday when I was nine or ten I was handed a paper cup full of Coke. I took a sip (expecting it to be a treat that I had been missing out on) and was so appalled by the taste that I had to sneak out to the backyard and dump my drink. That pretty much ended my cola-drinking career.

Not liking Coke, it turns out, may have  kept me from getting cancer. Though it didn’t get much publicity until recently, Coke and other cola companies use a caramel coloring that contains a cancer-causing chemical with the unpronounceable name of 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI). The chemical is created as a byproduct of the industrial process used to make some caramel coloring – including caramel colors used by the major soda companies.

In 2007 the National Toxicology Program (part of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and one of the most highly regarded cancer testing agencies in the world) put 4-MeI  at the top of its priority list for testing. In its own words, the National Toxicology Program decided to study this chemical because of the “high potential for human exposure.” What the agency found was not comforting: “clear evidence” that 4-MeI  causes cancer in laboratory animals.

We don’t know for certain how long Coke and other  soda companies have been using caramel coloring tainted with 4-MeI, but the first published report measuring 4-MeI in caramel coloring is almost 40 years old. It seems likely that Coke, Pepsi, and other sodas that contain high amounts of caramel color have contained high amounts of 4-MeI for decades.

Based on the National Toxicology Program research, state officials in California identified 4-MeI as a cancer-causing chemical under the state consumer protection law, Proposition 65. The state set a limit on exposure to 4-MeI, to alert consumers when sodas or other products could expose them to high levels of the cancer-causing chemical. Independent scientists at the University of California looked at 4-MeI in soft drinks. They found  that drinking a single can of cola a day would expose consumers to almost four times as much MeI as the California safety standard.

You might think that Coke, Pepsi, and the other cola companies would have been anxious to protect consumers by switching to caramel coloring made without 4-MeI immediately. But no. Instead they sued California and asked the court to revoke the cancer listing.

Fortunately, the court upheld the state cancer listing, and the soda companies were forced to change their products.

The state’s limit on 4-MeI became effective in California in January. According to a company statement, Coca Cola has required its suppliers to provide them with caramel coloring with lower levels of 4-MeI, not just in California but everywhere.

In other words, if you drink Coke, your soda is safer today thanks to a simple but profound California law.