While all colas with caramel color have varying amounts of a potential carcinogen, Pepsi-One has higher amounts than other cola soft drinks, according to a new analysis released Thursday by Consumer Reports. The magazine tested levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI)—a chemical formed when caramel coloring is produced—and in 12 brands of soda from five manufacturers and found that two brands consistently had high levels of the chemical: Pepsi One and Malta Goya.
Both products exceeded 29 micrograms per can or bottle in multiple samples measured from products purchased in California. The state has a law requiring beverage manufacturers to carry a warning label on products that would expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI in a day.
“While we cannot say that this violates California’s Prop 65, we believe that these levels are too high, and we have asked the California Attorney General to investigate,” Consumer Reports stated in their report.
A spokesperson for PepsiCo said they believe Consumer Reports’ “conclusion is factually incorrect” and that “all of Pepsi’s products are below the threshold set in California and all are in full compliance with the law.” The company said it moved immediately to meet the new requirements in California and decided to apply the same standards to products distributed in the rest of the country.
Goya did not offer immediately respond to a request for comment.
Caramel color is used in certain food and beverages as a coloring agent but has nothing to do with real caramel. The chemical 4-MeI which has been recognized as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, but the US Food and Drug Administration states on its website that “it as no reason to believe that there is any immediate or short-term danger presented by 4-MeI at the levels expected in food from the use of caramel coloring.”
In a statement issued today, the FDA said it is “currently testing a variety of foods, including sodas” for 4-MeI and reviewing new data on the chemical’s safety to determine whether any action needs to be taken to limit its use in foods.
Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, said in a statement that “there is no reason why consumers need to be exposed to this avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food and beverages brown.”
The group would like to see federal laws requiring manufacturers to disclose whether their products contain caramel color and to not be allowed to carry a “natural” claim if they do. Whole Foods’ Dr. Snap has a “natural” label, even though Consumer Reports found that its products contained 4-MeI.
“At this point,” Consumer Reports recommended, “the best consumers can do to avoid exposure to 4-MeI is to choose soft drinks and other foods that do not list ‘caramel color’ or ‘artificial color’ on their ingredient list.”