Thursday, February 26, 2015

Safety of caramel colored beverages-New concerns may be out of place

Hitherto Cola drinks were shunned by safety conscious consumers on account of their potential adverse impact on health as they are rich in sugars like High Fructose Corn Syrup or white refined sugar causing obesity and other life style disorders. Of course there is a caveat that such adverse effects can manifest only when there is continuous over consumption. It is least realized that a bottle of cola containing 300 ml of the drink has a minimum of 30 g of sugar which gets into the blood in one go and imagine the quantity of sugar ingested if multiple drinks are consumed during a day! Though policy makers want to curb consumption of such sweetened beverages through mandatory regulations such efforts have been frustrated by the judiciary terming them as infringement of human rights! Now comes another concern that cola drinks which are colored using Caramel color derived from burnt sugar has a dangerous chemical artifact called 4-methylimidazole with a hazardous reputation. As usual those who raise red flag against presence of any unnatural chemical in a food or a beverage are up in arms against the cola industry and probably may launch campaigns to ban them altogether! How much truth is there in this assertion and should the innocent consumer worry about this so called danger? Read further below:

"In March 2012, a U.S. policy advocacy organisation found that 4-methylimidazole (4-MI), a chemical contaminant arisen from the formation of some caramel colourings, was present in cola drinks available in the U.S. market. Caramels are dark brown to black liquids or solids having an odour of burnt sugar. They can be used as food colour in a wide variety of foods, such as giving the distinctive brown colour to cola drinks. Caramel colourings are divided into four classes, namely Caramel I, II, III and IV with respective International Numbering System (INS) * number 150a, 150b, 150c and 150d. 4-MI is a contaminant in Caramel III and IV the manufacturing process of which involves the presence of ammonium compounds. The safety of 4-MI in food has raised concern because of its cancer-causing potential. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has evaluated the carcinogenicity of 4-MI and considered 4-MI as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" (i.e. Group 2B) solely basing on the studies in animals. Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has not evaluated the safety of 4-MI. Nevertheless, during its evaluation on caramel colourings, JECFA opined that the acute neurological effects produced by high doses of 4-MI would not appear to be of major concern when caramel colourings containing small amounts of this contaminant are used in food. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also evaluated the safety of caramel colourings and concluded that they are neither genotoxic (i.e. capable to cause damage to DNA), nor carcinogenic and that there is no evidence to show that they have any adverse effects on human reproduction or for the developing child. EFSA also considered that the highest exposure level to 4-MI that could result from the consumption of foods containing Caramel III and IV did not give rise to concern. Based on the highest detected level of 4-MI in cola drinks (i.e. 153 micrograms per 12 fl. oz. or about 360 mL) as reported by a U.S. policy advocacy organisation, a 60-kg individual would have to consume over 300 cans of that cola drink a day to reach the doses causing cancer in rodents after applying an uncertainty factor of 100. 
The Codex Alimentarius Commission has set provisions for the use of caramel colourings in a wide variety of food commodities. In Hong Kong, caramel is a permitted colouring matter under the Colouring Matters in Food Regulations. JECFA has set the maximum levels of 4-MI in Caramel III and IV in their chemical specifications to indicate good manufacturing practice. Some countries including the European Union, Mainland China and Korea have also set maximum level of 4-MI in Caramel III and IV. In the U.S., as stipulated in the Code of Federal Regulation, caramel colourings may be safely used for colouring foods generally, in amounts consistent with good manufacturing practice. Yet maximum level of 4-MI is not specified. However, in the U.S. State of California, 4-MI is a listed chemical known to cause cancer, effective since January 2011. Businesses are required to provide a "clear and reasonable" warning before knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone to a listed chemical".

The food safety authorities in the US has such a low credibility that their stand declaring caramel in food and beverages as safe may be viewed with some suspicion that it is influenced by the powerful food lobby which is known to financially contribute, rather liberally to the law makers during election times. But independent safety experts believe that the concentration of 4-MI in cola drinks is so low that it can hardly make any safety impact.  In a product like cola, if any harmful effect is to manifest one may have to consume at least 300 cans of the beverage a day! The safety clearance by European authorities clearly and specifically rule out any genotoxicity or carcinogenic effect on human beings by consuming such low levels of 4-MI. The World Health Organization also has set limits on using caramel in food products which are accepted universally setting to rest any apprehension on the part of the consumer community regarding this issue. As a general rule this Blogger does not agree with the industry that food products must be colored to make them acceptable or appealing to the consumers. Such addition of chemicals must be rarest of the rare for compelling or unavoidable technical reasons only.       


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