The deep brown color associated with cola drinks has created a problem for America's two dominant soft drink manufacturers, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which each decided to tweak their recipes rather than risk having a cancer warning on their labels under California food regulations.
In more of a Cola Retreat than a Cola War, the two soda giants each contend there is no health risk from 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), a chemical found in the caramel coloring used in Coke and Pepsi. But with rival Dr. Pepper Snapple meeting the California standard, they determined it is easier to change the recipes than to fight the law or manufacture a separate version just for that state.
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the company is merely trying to avoid a "scientifically unfounded" warning label. The new recipes lower the amounts of the coloring to below the California threshold.
The move will not affect the companies' products in Europe, where the European Food Safety Authority concluded that 4-MEI in caramel coloring is not a concern.
But in February 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer listed 4-MEI among its Group 2B compounds, those possibly carcinogenic to humans. That classification, however, does not mean that foods with small amounts of the chemical, a by-product of heating and browning, will cause cancer.
Still, the soda shifts have attracted attention around the world, including the BBC.
Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, filed a petition with the federal Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of ammonia-sulfite caramel coloring.
In samples purchased from stores in the Washington, D.C., area, the group reported that Coke and Pepsi cola products had levels of 4-MEI four to five times higher than the California standard of 29 micrograms per 12 ounces. In contrast, colas from the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group had less than the California limit, the center reported.
“Coke and Pepsi, with the acquiescence of the FDA, are needlessly exposing millions of Americans to a chemical that causes cancer,” Michael Jacobson, the center's executive director, said in a press release. “The coloring is completely cosmetic, adding nothing to the flavor of the product."
But a trade industry group, the American Beverage Association, issued a press release denouncing the move as "scare tactics," saying, "The science simply does not show that 4-MEI foods or beverages is a threat to human health."
An FDA spokesman seemed to agree. He told the AP that a consumer would have to drink more than 1,000 cans of soda a day to reach the doses in a study that linked the chemical to cancer in rodents.