It was also vital to make the ingredient a drop-in replacement with no need for reformulation. “Our goal was to find a 1:1 replacement so that cola manufacturers would not have to alter their concentrates that they send to their bottlers,” says Lawson, “and so that consumers would not see or experience any difference in their taste experience with the product. We are pleased that our research has resulted in a patented process to produce Class IV caramel colors that, when used in soft drinks, meets the low 4-MeI levels requested by our customers.”
A Matter of Perspective
During their research, D.D. Williamson brought in James Coughlin, Ph.D., a toxicologist with Coughlin & Associates, who has scientific expertise in the browning reaction, plus Prop. 65 compliance. He looked at the levels of 4-Mel that were fed to the rats and the mice in the NTP study to determine the equivalent number of colas people would need to drink to hit those levels. Early last year, a spokesperson from FDA estimated that the equivalent number of sodas consumed would be around 1,000 (Time, Feb. 17, 2011).
Although that number is clearly beyond the capacity of any human being, it was way off the mark.
“If you look at a typical level of 4-Mel that would be in a cola today,” says Lawson, “Coughlin found that a woman would have to drink 37,000 cans a day for life to equal the lowest dose that the female mice were fed. A man would need to consume 91,500 cans—those are 12-oz. cans—per day, for life, to equal what the male mouse was fed.”
Absurdities aside, this process of fine-tuning the composition of colas to mitigate a labeling issue also serves another purpose—aligning the products more closely with consumer desires. While caramel color has been clearly determined as safe and no action was likely necessary, the Prop. 65 listing, and the subsequent media coverage that attracts, casts a shadow of doubt. In order to maintain—and continue building—consumer confidence, a reaction was necessary.
While action in this case clearly stemmed from the desire to avoid negative labeling stipulations, consumer perceptions of various ingredients in foods and beverages—as the population progressively enters into debates on every aspect of food production, from farm to fork—often catalyze product redesign. Expensive reformulation is never taken lightly, but it’s vital that the food industry remains in touch with what consumers, en masse, want and believe.
Stay tuned for future installments of “Cola Wars.” And for some behind-the-scenes Coke and Pepsi insight, see “Coca-Cola® Co. and PepsiCo® Management Examine Building a Beverage Brand.”