'Coke Causes Cancer' Headline From Center for Science in the Public Interest Misses Important Health Details


Health watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has cornered the market on food fears, both manufactured and real. The March report on carcinogenic caramel food coloring in popular colas was translated in the media as "Coke Causes Cancer." This is of course, not precisely true, Coke is not the only culprit, and CSPI also warned that consumers should be more concerned about high-fructose corn syrup that is ubiquitous in soft drinks. The report, and the media's coverage of it, is another example of how the detailed information that could actually help make consumers healthier is as an afterthought, and is ignored by reporters and readers alike.

The reported cancer risk results from the presence of 4-methylimidazole (4-MI) in cola drinks (not just "Coke"). 4-MI is a chemical by-product of an ammonia-based process used to create innocuous-sounding "caramel food coloring." Using methodology based on strict state of California food safety standards, CSPI reports that the presence of this chemical in cola or cola-type products (Dr. Pepper and generic colas, including Whole Foods 365 Cola) may be the source of up to 15,000 cancers in the U.S.

In 2011, CSPI petitioned the FDA to ban food coloring made with ammonia or ammonia-sulfite processes, which includes the caramel coloring used in Coke. The current report focusing on caramel coloring used in soft drinks is another part of that effort. CSPI is the organization which spearheaded successful efforts to include calorie labels on menus, put food allergen labeling on packages, and eliminate high-calorie soft drinks from school menus.

America's food supply is heavy in a variety of unhealthy substances, ranging from many food colorings that are linked to cancer (caramel coloring is just one of several) to high fructose corn syrup, unnecessary processed dairy and thickening agents, and mad amounts of sodium in nearly every processed prepared food.

The good news is that PepsiCo has already switched to a safer, more natural caramel coloring for its products bottled in California, the state which has already established higher safety standards for this type of additive. Food technology more than capable of managing the development and use of less-toxic alternatives, and the general food industry trend is for higher-quality, less additive-laden products. 

The bad news is that people see headlines like "Coke causes cancer," and make fun of alarmist food safety reports. Food headlines have simultaneously become marketing footballs ("Heart Healthy!") and objects of derision and mockery. The evidence that the growth of the American food industry and "food science" has coincided with modern "diseases of civilization" is overwhelming. While increasing numbers of people are choosing to change their diets for health and environmental/sustainability reasons (like me), reports that addictive, calorie-laden beverages like cola cause cancer are likely to work at cross-purposes to the worthwhile goals of organizations like CSPI. The information that the real and serious health dangers associated with drinking too much cola are obesity, diabetes, and heart disease is usually thrown in as an afterthought in such reports, and ignored by reporters and readers alike.