ATLANTA—Coca-Cola announced it has directed its caramel suppliers to modify their manufacturing processes to reduce the levels of the chemical 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), a suspected carcinogenic formed when it mixes in the ammonia compound to make caramel color. Coke said it is not changing its formula, and the lower levels of 4-MEI will not affect the taste of the products.
Changes already have been made for beverages sold in California after 4-MEI was added to the list of chemicals covered by the state’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as Proposition 65, in January 2012. The changes will be expanded nationally to streamline its manufacturing processes. (Other media outlets have reported PepsiCo also agreed to reduce 4-MEI levels; however, Food Product Design could not confirm the move.
The safety of certain caramel colors came under fire again last week after the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released results of new lab tests that found "unsafe levels" of 4-MEI in cans of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc's Dr. Pepper and Whole Foods' 365 Cola.
A statement issued by Coca-Cola, said: “Extensive media coverage has been devoted in the past few days to some misconceptions about caramel and The Coca-Cola Company's beverages. We want to set the record straight, and be absolutely clear: The caramel color in all of our products has been, is and always will be safe, and The Coca-Cola Company is not changing the world-famous formula for our Coca-Cola beverages. Over the years, we have updated our manufacturing processes from time to time, but never altered our Secret Formula.
We have asked our caramel manufacturers to modify their production process to reduce the amount of 4-MEI in the caramel, but that will have no effect on the formula or on the great-tasting, high-quality products that consumers expect from us. These modifications will not affect the color or taste of Coca-Cola.
Our commitment to the highest quality and safety of our great brands remains our top priority. And we will continue to rely on sound, evidence-based science to ensure that our products are safe."
Last week, the American Beverage Association called the findings “nothing more than CSPI scare tactics, and their claims are outrageous. The science simply does not show that 4-MEI in foods or beverages is a threat to human health."
Currently the Code of Federal Regulations says “caramel may be safely used for coloring foods generally, in amounts consistent with good manufacturing practice," and does not distinguish between the four different classes of caramel color. CSPI has requested that FDA ban the use of ammonia- and ammonia-sulfite-process caramel colorings that contain 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole, both of which, the group says caused lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats according to government research. Class III Caramel Color is processed with ammonium compounds and is often used in baking, beer, soy sauce, gravy, and other products. Class IV Caramel Color, or acid-proof caramel, is processed with ammonium-containing and sulfite-containing compounds and is often formulated into colas and other soft drinks, blended whiskey, and other general food applications.