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Is Caramel Color Carcinogenic?

Concern that one of the most commonly consumed food colorings may cause cancer has led to changes in soft drink formulation in California.

December 2, 2013 |
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Supplementary Info

Can't view the video above? Try it on Vimeo!
View Is Caramel Color Carcinogenic? on Vimeo

Sources Cited

Acknowledgements

Images thanks to The Rocketeer, Roadsidepictures and .tungl via Flickr. Thanks to Ellen Reid for her image-finding expertise and Minh Nguyen and Jeff Thomas for their Keynote help.

Transcript

Used as a coloring agent in products ranging from colas and beer to gravies and soy sauce, caramel coloring may be the world’s most widely consumed food coloring, helping to sell over a billion servings a day. Unfortunately, the manufacturing of certain artificial caramel colorings can lead to the formation of carcinogens, such as 4-methylimidazole, which causes cancer in mice, but not rats, or at least not male rats, but it is unclear whether humans are more like mice or rats in terms of their response to the carcinogen.

To be safe, California officially listed it as a carcinogen and started requiring warning labels on soft drinks containing more than 29 micrograms per can. The soft drink industry was unsuccessful in opposing the action, so they were forced to reduce carcinogen levels in their products, but only in California. Buy coke anywhere else and it may have up to 5 times the limit.

Remember Coca Cola's Tab Clear, though, or Crystal Pepsi? Clearly… they can do away with carcinogenic colorings altogether.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org.

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

There’s another class of additives that the soda industry uses to make its soda brown. See Phosphate Additives in Meat Purge and Cola.

The meat industry has also used potentially toxic additives for cosmetic purposes: Arsenic-containing drugs to make chicken pink (Arsenic in Chicken). Phosphate Additives in Chicken also help maintain the color of poultry. Carbon monoxide is used to keep red meat red, Acanthoxanthins keep salmon pink (Artificial Coloring in Fish).

The junk food industry uses titanium dioxide to whiten processed foods (Titanium Dioxide & Inflammatory Bowel Disease). It’s amazing the risks the food industry will take to alter appearances (Artificial Food Colors and ADHD).

There are other harmful additives in soda as well (Is Sodium Benzoate Harmful? and Diet Soda and Preterm Birth).

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • Sebastian Tristan

    The Youtube account is back! No one messes with the Doc! =D

    • JoRPV

      Yes – the good Dr. G is back online!

  • DH

    I’ve started eating olives, because my BP went down too far on WFPBD and I was getting presyncopal symptoms. Are any of the following constituents, commonly seen in olives, harmful?

    -sodium alginate
    -guar gum
    -calcium chloride
    -potassium sorbate
    -lactic acid
    -citric acid

    • Stephen Lucker Kelly

      I would not trust Guar Gum, it’s usually GMO. Depends how much salt is added too (potassium sorbate), Lactic acid comes from milk and is not good for you. Sodium Alginate (E401) is extracted from brown seaweed, not sure if that is good or bad. Calcium chloride I am also not sure about. Not sure where the olives are?

      • DH

        I will look into organic olives. The problem is their price and the fact they are not available in bulk (here). If worse comes to worse, I will simply consume table salt and give up the olives entirely.

        • Stephen Lucker Kelly

          Why would you consume table salt? Just go to a farmers market, they will have loads there I am sure, probable taste better too, nice and fresh.

          You should eat very little to no salt. Most people get way to much salt in their diet. You should make sure your salt intake is low. And more inline with nature, and where you would get salt from. As in food.

          I am also sure if you don’t know any farmers markets that you can find some olives not in liquid. Or with next to no crap added to them. Just look at the different brands.

        • Stephen Lucker Kelly

          If you’re blood pressure is too low eat more nuts and seeds. Chia seeds and flex seeds are good sources of Omega3, and walnuts are not bad either, but higher in omega 6 but it depends how much fats you eat whether you need to worry about omega 6.

        • Toxins

          Be weary of potassium sorbate.
          http://nutritionfacts.org/video/is-potassium-sorbate-bad-for-you/

          Having low blood pressure can be a result of other factors and not necessarily low sodium. Sodium needs for humans are extremely low. The bare minimum one needs for survival is around 130 according to the NIH. Of course excessive sweating will raise this but not an incredible amount. A safe limit of salt is 1500mg or lower.

          • D.H.

            Toxins, my BP has gone down after going with a WFPBD, and I am extremely lightheaded immediately upon standing for a sitting or lying position. I calculated my 24 hour intake of sodium chloride to be well under the 2300 mg recommended in the latest IOM report – in fact, it’s more like 300-400 mg per day. As soon as I “salt-loaded” with olives, I felt immediately better. The dizziness and cognitive dysfunction are now a thing of the past. I think this speaks to the great variability in sodium needs between individuals. A WFPBD just does not contain a lot of sodium, since more than 80% of sodium arrives at the table in the form of processed food, and about 20% is added from the salt shaker (and I was not doing either of these things).
            Of course, for a hypertensive individual, sodium chloride needs are a lot lowly – closer to the 130 mg per day that you quote, and certainly under 1200 mg per day is best.

          • Thea

            D.H: I’m not a doctor or expert in any way, but I had a thought for you. I had a co-worker who went vegan (whole plant foods) and started feeling shaky and weak. After talking to her about her diet, I thought she might be a bit low on calories. So, I suggested she add nuts/seeds/avocados. that fixed her problem.

            The reason I thought of this when I saw your post is that olives are so calorie dense. So, is it the salt in the olives that made you feel better or just that you were getting some much needed calories? If that’s the case, then you would have more options on what to add to your diet to fix the problem (ie, not just olives).

            As I said, I’m not a doctor, so my thought may be completely off base. Just thought I would share the idea in case it is helpful.

          • DH

            Yes they are calorie dense but it is the salt that saved me. I could do table salt instead. My peacounter tells me I am getting less than 300 mg of sodium per 24 h intake without addition of a salt source, and thus getting extremely lightheaded upon standing. Feeling ‘grayed out’ and unable to tolerate my normal exercise regimen. Adding olives fixed all this.

          • Thule

            If you have a healthy diet there aren’t any worries about taking salt, see here Dr Pam Popper commenting the results of the latests studies:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hvCxTm-aA3Q

            We do need salt, otherwise you would have an imbalance too much potassium vs sodium, which might land you in hospital.

    • guest

      I use Trader Joe’s Greek Kalamata Olives. The label only lists olives, water, salt and red wine vinegar. Am I missing something?

    • guest

      why would anyone ever eat something with this stuff in it? I would’t even question your curiosity if I were you. Find olives that don’t contain this stuff. They are available.

    • Coacervate

      Low BP (lower than 90 or 60) can be a sign of serious illness. Eating olives may not be the best plan. The only thing I would be concerned about in your list is potassium sorbate. It harms fungi. I can’t say if it is harmful in humans. Please let us know how you make out with your BP…would you care to tell us what it is?

      • DH

        White coat (public environment) systolics of around 100-106 mmHg, but much lower at home, and of course with standing up, even more drops.

        • Coacervate

          I meant to say that bp lower than 90 DIASTOLIC or 60 SYSTOLIC is considered LOW by the professionals. The symptoms you describe may be serious and you should see your GP about it. Best wishes

  • Vim

    How about mollasses, then? If I recall you had a video pointing it out along with honey as the healthiest source of tea-sugar, due to nutrient contents. But is there anything bad coming out of the Maillard reaction in mollasses? Blackstrap has a reputation for some as a health food, so the question may be somewhat important.

  • JD

    This gets me wondering about Liquid Smoke. I’m sure it is not an optimal condiment, even if I can find one without caramel color. The one I have does have caramel coloring (water, natural hickory smoke flavor, vinegar, molasses, caramel color, and salt). What the heck is “natural liquid smoke flavor” anyway? Not only is it the product but it is also an ingredient in the product. I’ve avoided this condiment in the past but recently bought some after seeing, in a video, Chef AJ use a capful in a batch of split pea soup. I’ve been having a hard time getting some of the no-added-oil/low-fat, low-sodium, refined-sweetener-free, plant-based recipes to taste appealing, which is why I bought the Liquid Smoke.

    • Darryl

      There have been many studies on levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons like benzo[a]pyrene in liquid smoke. The maximum seen in commercial liquid smoke preparations hovers around regulatory limits (1 ng/g in the EU). It appears to be a rather small dietary source compared to high heat cooking methods and fats. From this review:

      Chemical analysis of foods shows that flame-grilling can form both PAHs and heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA), and that frying forms predominantly HAA. With detection limits of about 0.1 ng/g, amounts found in commercially processed or restaurant fooods range from 0.1 to 14 ng/g for HAA, and levels of PAH up to 1 ng/g in liquid smoke flavoring. Laboratory fried samples have greater amounts of PAH, up to 38 ng/g in hambugers, and high levels of HAA, over 300 ng/g, are mesured in grilled chicken breast.

    • Thea

      JD: Keep looking around for different brands of liquid smoke. I found that my local health food store had a brand of liquid smoke that contained all the extra garbage (sweetener, color, etc) that you list above. Then, to my surprise, the brand of liquid smoke at my Fred Myer contained nothing but liquid smoke. Win!

      Sometimes that bit of liquid smoke in a dish really makes the dish. I don’t use that much of it or all that often. Thus: It is one ingredient I’m not willing to give up! Just my personal thoughts on the topic. Good luck.

      • DH

        How does one know that ‘natural flavor’ or ‘color’ is necessarily garbage? Isn’t that a case of “guilty until proven innocent” with what one is eating?

        • Thea

          DH: There is quite a bit of evidence that many of our “colors” are indeed harmful to us.

          http://nutritionfacts.org/video/artificial-food-colors-and-adhd/

          http://nutritionfacts.org/video/are-artificial-colors-harmful/

          http://nutritionfacts.org/video/artificial-coloring-in-fish/

          Most people consider sweeteners to be junk food. There might be some saving grace for say black strap molasses, but does anyone really consider it a health food? Something to poor straight on your veggies? I don’t. Not that I don’t eat plenty of sugars, but I don’t pretend that they are good for me.

          When I purchase a product like liquid smoke, I expect the contents to match the label. The brand that I saw in my health food store had corn syrup in it as the sweetener. I wouldn’t be using much of it, but why have it at all? Especially when I can avoid it completely with a different brand.

          What about the salt? Most people don’t want salt added. They want to add it/control it themselves. Etc.

          When it comes to people and principles regarding people, I am a *firm* believer in innocent until proven guilty. When it comes to food, I take a more middle ground–especially when food companies in general have a proven track record of harming us with their products.

          That’s just my 2 cents. Everyone of course has their own approach to what they consume. I responded above because the original poster did not seem aware that liquid smoke could be purchased with out all the “junk”/extras.

  • Ilana

    Could you look into this study about pesticides in tea leaves? (And any similar studies.) http://www.collective-evolution.com/2013/10/26/whats-in-your-mug-the-toxic-truth-about-tea/