If you think the high sugar content of soda and it’s relation to the current obesity epidemic is the biggest problem with drinking cola, you may want to think again. According to the latest research from Consumer Reports and and the Center for a Livable Future at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, cancer is what should top the list of reasons to avoid soda.
It may not seem like a high rate of occurrence given the size of the population, but experts indicate, based on current levels of soda consumption, somewhere between between 76 and 5,000 cases of cancer could be seen in the U.S. over the next 70 years directly related to drinking soda.
The culprit is a compound called 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), a substance used to turn colas and other food items brown.
“Every day, more than half of Americans between the ages of 6 and 64 typically drink soda in amounts that could expose them to enough 4-MeI to increase their cancer risk,” state the findings from Consumer Reports. “We looked at 110 samples of colas and other soft drinks purchased in California and the New York metropolitan region. Excluding a clear soda used as a control, we found that average 4-MeI levels in the samples we tested ranged from 3.4 to 352.5 micrograms (mcg) per 12-ounce bottle or can.”
Researchers found caramel-color-containing carbonated drinks contribute about 25 percent of the amount of 4-MeI in the diets of people over age 2, more than any other source.
4-MeI is not a new carcinogen. This compound has been on the danger list for a number of years, and has been a known ingredient in certain pharmaceuticals, photographic chemicals, dyes and pigments, cleaning and agricultural chemicals, rubber products, and food items. According to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), studies from the federal governments National Toxicology Program showed that long-term exposure to 4-MEI resulted in increases in lung cancer in male and female mice, and high concentrations were reported to irritate the lungs or burn the eyes and skin.
Unfortunately, 4-MeI is not unique to just cola. OEHHA notes the carcinogen is naturally created through certain cooking processes, and “cooking, roasting, or other food processing, such as the roasting of coffee beans, may also lead to formation of 4-MEI.”
Consumer Reports puts forth the same warning: cola may have been the item of study for this research, but many other food items carry as risk as well. Bread and other baked goods, dark sauces such as soy or barbecue, pancake syrup, and soups may all contain 4MeI, and because of the lack of labeling requirements, it remains a mystery just how much 4-MeI the public really ingests.
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“While we dont know what type of caramel color or how much 4-MeI is in those foods, its clear that many people are already getting concerning amounts of 4-MeI in their diets just from the soda they drink,” wrote researchers.
The lack of awareness and understanding of 4-MeI also makes it extremely difficult to avoid it. OEHHA notes the FDA is currently the only reliable way to control 4-MeI. Aside from their monitoring, the only thing people can do is avoid products they know significantly increase cancer risk–like dark-colored sodas.
“The findings of this comprehensive study have scientific, policy, and legal implications for calculating cancer risk and establishing limits for 4-MeI in food, Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., toxicologist for Consumer Reports, stated. “We dont think any food additive, particularly one thats only purpose is to color food brown, should elevate peoples cancer risk. Ideally, 4-MeI should not be added to food.