Coke and Pepsi hear it from the food police

At issue is a chemical used in caramel color. The claim: It can cause cancer.

By InvestorPlace Mar 6, 2012 10:19AM
By Jonathan Berr

(KO), PepsiCo (PEP) and the rest of the carbonated beverage industry have become public enemy No. 1 for the nation's self-appointed food police, and the battle is far from over.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on Monday announced that it had found "high levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-MI), a known animal carcinogen" in samples of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi that the group analyzed. The chemical is a byproduct of the manufacturing process used to create the distinctive brown caramel color in these popular beverages.

Wall Street shrugged off the news, with shares of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo not showing much reaction during Monday trading. KO barely budged, and PEP was up 0.4% on the day. Still, investors should take the CSPI test seriously because it can be a formidable foe to the food industry. Among CSPI's other fights are one with McDonald's (MCD) over the marketing of Happy Meal toys to kids.

The CSPI, which petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban ammonia sulfate food coloring in February 2011, has been at odds with the soda industry for years. The group is one of the leading proponents of levying additional taxes on soft drinks to attack America's obesity epidemic.

However, the CSPI's theories have several flaws.

First, just because a chemical causes cancer in animals does not necessarily mean it will also prove to be a human carcinogen. Also, just because something causes cancer in a laboratory doesn't mean it will trigger the disease in the real world.

"Is it a carcinogen? The tests have shown in mice it can increase the risk of cancer," said Dr. Fred Guengerich, professor of biochemistry at Vanderbilt University in an interview last year with ABC News. "On the other hand, there is also evidence in male rats, it prevented several kinds of cancer."

Not surprisingly, the American Beverage Association (ABA) trade group rejected the CSPI's arguments. "This is nothing more than CSPI scare tactics, and their claims are outrageous," the ABA said in a statement. "The science simply does not show that 4-MEI in foods or beverages is a threat to human health. In fact, findings of regulatory agencies worldwide, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada, consider caramel coloring safe for use in foods and beverages."

Officials in California took a different tact. In January, the state added 4-MI to its list of human carcinogens, a decision the beverage industry challenged in court and lost. Industry officials argued that the move was based on flawed science. Soda or other foods with 29 micrograms of 4-MI must be sold with a warning label in California. The CSPI's samples collected in Washington, D.C., all had higher levels than that standard.

"Three of four samples of Dr Pepper or Diet Dr Pepper that CSPI tested had low levels of 4-MI, with about 10 mcg per 12 ounces," the CSPI said. "But even those levels pose a cancer risk of seven in one million -- seven times greater than what FDA allows."

The FDA, in fact, doesn't appear to be nearly as worried about the "threat" as is the CSPI, which argues that 4-MI probably causes cancers in humans.

An FDA spokesman, Douglas Karas, told Bloomberg News that the agency doesn't believe the substance poses an immediate risk and that "a consumer would have to drink more than a thousand cans of soda in a day to match the doses administered in studies that showed links to cancer in rodents."

CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobsen accused the FDA of simply "regurgitating" the arguments of the beverage industry in an interview with InvestorPlace. He noted that cancers can take decades to manifest themselves and that a solution to the problem is not difficult to find.

"Some people drink almost 10 cans a day [of soda]," said Jacobsen, adding that "having a Coke every week or two is not a major problem."

Unfortunately for the industry, those types of 10-can-a-day dedicated customers are increasingly rare. Per capita soda consumption in the U.S. has been on the decline for years, which is why Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have expanded for years into noncarbonated drinks such as sports drinks.

Seeking to sooth concerns, the trade group ABA added: "Our member companies will still use caramel coloring in certain products, as always. The companies that make caramel coloring for our members' soft drinks are producing it to meet California's new standard. Consumers will notice no difference in our products and have no reason at all for any health concerns."

Despite all this, Coca-Cola still managed to make Fortune's list as one of the world's most admired companies.

As of this writing, Jonathan Berr is long Coca-Cola.

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Mar 6, 2012 1:24PM
Thank you CSPI for trying to protect me from myself but I will eat and drink whatever I want to eat and drink. I could really careless if you approve or not. Why don't you go get yourself some real jobs instead of trying to control the lives of other people?

Oh and there is a reason businesses are fleeing California and the State is in more financial trouble than the Federal government. It is called over regulation. It would be different if there was any evidence at all to suggest Californians live longer than other Americans but amazingly that isn't the case. Despite being regulated to the max, they don't live any longer or healthier than the rest of us.
Mar 6, 2012 6:12PM
Junk science from a junk science group. No news here. Life causes cancer.
Mar 6, 2012 6:59PM
GOOD GRIEF...Don't drink soda...Drink beer........
Mar 6, 2012 6:14PM

But, the carcinogens have all the flavor.


What? You're not going to BBQ from now on either?...

Mar 6, 2012 7:01PM
EVERYTHING gives you cancer or <insert name of disease/condition here>...give it a few years and the "experts" will say it's not  bad for you...look at what the "experts" said about eggs...

Mar 6, 2012 7:15PM
I know people in their 80's who have eaten fried, greasy  foods their whole life and are no different healthwise than their peer who is a vegetarian.

We see fitness and diet gurus die just like anyone else at the same age.

Recently we see that .... well, eating fried foods is not bad after all. (british study)
How many times do we see the so-called experts backtrack ??? many times.

Your health is mostly dictated by genes and hereditary issues. The rest of the baloney fits into the same category as global warming.
Mar 6, 2012 7:36PM
According to the article "a consumer would have to drink more than a thousand cans of soda in a day to match the doses administered in studies that showed links to cancer in rodents."
In order to pull off that type of feat, one would have to consume 2 (12 oz.) cans of (insert preferred cola brand name) every 3 minutes for the duration of a 24 hour period. Quite frankly the caffeine would kill you before you popped the top on can #1000.
Mar 6, 2012 7:09PM
This just in.... birth is the leading cause of death.... moron this at 10
Mar 6, 2012 4:53PM
Personally, I don't drink soda as I just don't like it.  However, if a food/drink contains some type of chemical crap I like for that to be disclosed.  That way, if I choose to consume the product I do so with full knowledge.  If they can just bury stuff that may not be good for you in a product, how can I make a fully informed decision?  Putting information on a label doesn't necessarily stop me from consuming a product - I drink wine for example.  But it gives me the power to make my consumption choice as a fully informed knowledgable consumer.  I have made the decision to stay away from trans fats based on my family history of heart disease.  So, when choosing peanut butter for example, I look for peanut butter that is pretty much just peanuts and salt.  I stay away from the peanut butter that contains partially hydrogenated oils.  I'm still the one making the choice but I'm doing so with the necessary information.  As the old saying goes, "information is power."
Mar 6, 2012 6:59PM
The CSPI needs to find a worthy cause to occupy its time and stop this nonsense.
Darned near everything we eat and drink  has possible carcinogens in it.
Mar 6, 2012 5:13PM
If it was me, I would refuse to sell my product in CA. The soda is not even where the profits come from.
Mar 6, 2012 7:32PM
THE FUNNY THING ABOUT THIS CANCER STUFF IN COKE, PEPSI  is how long has these drinks been out on the shelves  ??? years and years.. and now they can give you CANCER  ??? whats up with the food, drug  thingy... Its all a bout MONEY and the BS thats goes along with it ???  If it is no good for you just get it taking off the shelves that would be the bottom line... Remove it from LIFE...
Mar 6, 2012 8:14PM
They forgot to mention the amount of 4-MI, they gave the test rats...A person would have to drink 2,900 cans a day for 70 years to equal the amount they gave the test rats.... They also did not mention that 4-MI is a by product of carmeliazation, which means you eat it at home every time you carmalize onions or sugar....The  CSPI is a joke....
Mar 6, 2012 8:25PM

But, I DO drink 1,000 cans of soda a day!  :(

Mar 6, 2012 8:26PM
when your time is up , its up , drink what you want , Are pork rinds bad for you,
Mar 6, 2012 7:17PM
CPA Lyn.  The quotation is "Knowledge is power".  The difference is that knowledge implies understanding.  Information is just data.  Information about what "chemical crap" is in stuff only serves to confuse the issue.  Do you think any food or beverage is only composed of a few things.  Milk and soybeans are full of naturally occuring hormones but  labels don't tell you that because it's not important for you to know.  All foods and beverages contain minute amounts of "carcinogens and toxins" at minute levels that are physiologically meaningless so having information is only important when it means something.  Food are labeled to give you information about things like transfats because trans fats have been linked to increased risks of disease.  If every minute contaminant of every product had to be labeled food and beverages would come with memory sticks and we would need to shop with laptops.  Information is not power in the hands of the misinformed!
Mar 6, 2012 10:55PM

Eat right, exercise regularly, die anyway.

Mar 6, 2012 8:26PM
This borders on a national emergency.If  we can send remotes to Mars we can change the coloring formula of Diet Coke!
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