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.