The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has asked the FDA to ban two types of caramel coloring used as food additives. Some types of caramel coloring have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
Caramel coloring is one of the most commonly used food additives and is found in most kinds of commercially produced food, such as bread, beer, chocolate, liquor, potato chips, fruit preserves, ice cream, and soft drinks.
What Is Caramel Coloring?
Caramel coloring is a food additive produced by heating a carbohydrate (usually in some form of sugar) and combining it with acids, alkalis, or salts. The Maillard reaction that chefs and home cooks rely on to produce the browning that flavors recipes so well is a precursor to the commercial caramelization process.
Commercial processes continue heating the coloring to very high temperatures and under high pressure until it is stable. The heat and chemicals used to produce caramel coloring sterilize it and bacteria will not live in it unless it is diluted.
Caramel coloring tastes like burnt sugar. Other flavorings must be used to mask its flavor. It’s mainly used as a coloring and as an emulsifier to keep ingredients from separating.
Caramel Coloring Classification
Caramel coloring as a food additive is made in four ways:
- I – no ammonium or sulfite compounds are used
- II – no ammonium compounds are used, but sulfite compounds are used
- III – ammonium compounds are used, but no sulfite compounds are used
- IV – both sulfite and ammonium compounds are used
The two caramel colorings produced with ammonia (III and IV) form 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole, both of which cause lung, liver, or thryoid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice and rats. It is these two caramel colorings that the CSPI has asked the FDA to ban.
California and Caramel Coloring
California has already started a labeling requirement for the caramel colorings III and IV. A hearing will be held on March 10. If the labeling is approved, soft drinks and many other foods in California would be labeled with a cancer warning.
The California League of Food Processors, the American Beverage Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and the National Coffee Association are suing the state of California to prevent the labeling requirement.
Avoiding Caramel Coloring
Caramel coloring is used in so many foods, it’s nearly impossible to come home from the grocery store without it. Even many “natural” foods contain it. Limiting consumption of unnecessary foods (those containing “empty calories”, such as soft drinks) and increasing intake of whole foods, like fresh produce, is the best way to reduce caramel coloring intake.
This note from the CSPI press release helps put the risk in context:
…the ten teaspoons of obesity-causing sugars in a non-diet can of soda presents a greater health risk than the ammonia sulfite process caramel. But the levels of 4-MI in the tested colas still may be causing thousands of cancers in the U.S. population.
Image by reggie35, used with Creative Commons license.