Making Conversation: The cancerous caramel color

Last week Coca Cola and Pepsi announced they would change the processing method for the molecule that gives our favorite soft drinks their caramel color, after California placed a chemical byproduct of the method on its list of known carcinogens.

According to a study commissioned by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Coke, diet Coke, Pepsi and diet Pepsi all contain high levels of the byproduct, called 4-methylimidazole (4-MI). California performed its own study to determine the “no significant risk level” of the molecule, which came out to 16ug/day. According to the FDA, one would have to drink 1,000 cans of soda a day to reach that level.

I asked Mike Jacobson, the co-founder of CSPI, to comment on the issue. Here’s what he had to say:

“The FDA used that 1,000-cans-a-day statement to ridicule concerns about carcinogen-contaminated caramel coloring. Be aware that 30% of the rats got cancer. If, using the FDA number, drinking one can a day would lead to 3 in 10,000 people getting cancer, an outrageously high number (I think FDA’s numbers are wrong, but the point remains).”

Three in 10,000 people? That doesn’t seem outrageously high to me, Mike.

“No, it’s not many people, if it doesn’t bother you to have 10,000 people dying for no reason at all. Of course, the sugars in the drinks are far more harmful.”

So readers, what do you think? Is it right to let people die “for no reason at all,” when there is an alternative that can produce the compound safely, even if soda drinkers know the dangers of their behavior?

Or is the caramel color debate irrelevant in an era of rising obesity and type 2 diabetes rates? Should CPSI be focusing its efforts elsewhere, or does every harmful element we’re exposed to deserve to be recognized?