By Peter Njonjo
The recent study published by the Centre for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) claiming that a compound that occurs naturally in caramel production associated with foods and beverages such as Coca-Cola is a carcinogen sheds more smoke than light.
A quick background shows that CSPI sought to petition the US Food and Drug Administration to ban 4-Methylimidazole, commonly known as 4-MEI found in caramel coloring.
The basis of the petition is an inconclusive 2007 study by the National Toxicology Programme (NTP), an inter-agency program run by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
The study on mice and rats over a two year period concluded that 4-MEI was not identified as a compound “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
The subject of the debate, 4-Methylimidazole is a compound that can be formed when foods containing sugar and protein like cereals, beverages, baked goods, confectionary products, dairy products, and condiments like soy sauce, are cooked and undergo browning reactions in the process of baking, roasting and frying. There is no evidence that 4-MEI is a cancer-causing agent.
No health regulatory body in the world has declared the compound a carcinogen. The American regulator, the FDA, classifies caramel color as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). So do regulatory agencies around the world, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which concludes “these caramel colors are neither genotoxic nor carcinogenic.”
The ubiquitous nature of this compound and the inconclusive results of the study meant that any respectable advocacy work would require more scientific proof to ascertain the carcinogen line of attack. To achieve the sought-after reaction amongst consumers, CSPI petitioned on the use caramel coloring in soft drinks. Increased awareness of foods and their relation to our health is an ongoing concern and headline magnet.
There is no doubt about the role our lifestyles and foods we consume play. However, many nutritionists will always advocate for moderation in everything we consume.
A 9-country study conducted by the advocacy group shows that Countries such as Brazil, UAE, Kenya and the United Kingdom contain between 177 and 260 micrograms per 12 ounces (355 ml) of caramel coloring. It is to be noted that all of Africa, and indeed Australia and New Zealand, source their concentrate for the manufacture of Coke, from one plant, based in Swaziland. Kenya does not have a concentrate manufacturing plant.
The debate on the micrograms present in a drink presupposes that the coloring is a declared carcinogen.