Much Ado About Caramel Coloring

While science refutes the 4-MEI/caramel coloring-cancer connection, soda makers reformulate for California.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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A popular campaign on www.Change.org,  led by ThisDishIsVeg blogger Daelyn Fortney garnered over 6,000 signatures, which sent an email directly to Starbucks headquarters.

"What originally began as a story to inform vegans that their Starbucks' Strawberry Frappucino was no longer safe to consume ended up being an issue that bothered many people," said Fortney. "Individuals across the country and world turned their single voices into one steady roar that informed Starbucks of their displeasure. Thanks to social media and my petition on Change.org, within a matter of weeks, Starbucks has agreed to rectify the situation, showing that it is a stand-up company that cares about its consumers."

There has never been a study that showed any connection between 4-MEI and cancer in humans, according to several people we talked to. "It's certainly not a health risk," James Coughlin, a toxicologist who studies animal carcinogens, told Food Safety News. "Cola is not causing cancer in humans. For humans to reach the equivalent of even the lowest cancer-causing dose in mice, a woman would have to drink 37,000 cans (12 oz.) a day for the rest of her life; a man would have to drink a whopping 95,000 cans a day. CSPI took these animal numbers and calculated cases of human cancer, but you can't just take those animal statistics and transfer them. I believe this is much ado about nothing."

"Caramel color is now — and has always been — safe and harmless," says Ted Nixon, CEO of D.D. Williamson (ddwilliamson.com), Louisville, Ky. To accommodate customers who sell products in California, "We did have to change these various inputs of temperature, pressure and the various ingredients we're using in order to change [4-MI concentrations]," Nixon says. He adds the company will be able to meet the demand of all of soda clients in rolling out this modified caramel color in products both nationwide and worldwide.

But if you believe what the State of California recommends, says Nixon, "You [also] will no longer grill on holidays or enjoy a cup of coffee on a peaceful Sunday morning."

"The full impact of California's decision to add 4-MEI caramel coloring to its list of carcinogens is yet to be seen," says Stefan Hake, CEO of GNT USA Inc. (www.gnt-group.com), Tarrytown, N.Y. "When a major ruling such as this occurs, it inevitably results in the scrutiny of the additive's existing safety standards and a suspicion of the scientific studies that resulted in the new ruling. This is the type of conversation that most companies would like to avoid."

Hake adds," The more interesting story is how this ruling will play out from a public relations and marketing perspective. Will companies seize this opportunity to connect with their customers through products and ingredients that require less explanation and offer an understanding of their origins and the process required to make them? Ample alternatives exist, providing companies with a platform to create meaningful connections with their consumers through the use of coloring ingredients derived from edible and recognizable fruits and vegetables."

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