Caramel Color in Foods

Caramel color is added to many soft drinks and some foods. Recently, there has been some concern about some types of this artificial coloring that may contain a chemical called 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MEI.

4-MEI is created when some types of artificial caramel colors are produced, and it is also created when some foods are prepared – such as when coffee is roasted, or malt is cooked for alcoholic beverages. In 2007, a federal government study found 4-MEI caused cancer in mice, and in 2011 it was classified as a “possible human carcinogen” by a division of the World Health Organization (WHO). The state of California has set limits on the amount of 4-MEl that may be present in food and drinks. However, according to the FDA, there is no short-term danger presented by 4-MEI at the levels expected in food from the use of caramel coloring.

A Consumer Reports article, published Jan. 23, 2014, details the results of tests performed by the magazine with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future on 10 brands of soda and one brand of tea. Several of the sodas had 4-MEI levels that are higher than a limit set by the state of California for the chemical. 

Children are most likely to encounter this chemical in sodas that are brown.  We do not know how consuming a small amount of 4-MEI over a long period of time will impact children’s health. Children do not need to have any special testing done if they have consumed soda; there is no way to measure 4-MEI in the body. 

Parents who are concerned about 4-MEI can limit their child’s intake of soda, which is not a necessary part of any child’s diet. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises children consume water and milk, and, in limited amounts, 100 percent fruit juice.