The deadly science of drinking soda: Research puts a number on soft drink-related cancer cases

4-Mel, a chemical that makes soda brown, is raising our risk of cancer

By Joanna Rothkopf
Published February 18, 2015 10:00PM (EST)
  (AP/Jeff Chiu)
(AP/Jeff Chiu)

Although former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's war against large sodas failed in court, it succeeded in spreading awareness about the danger of consuming too many sugary beverages. But we might have to be wary of sodas for reasons other than excess sugar and weight gain. A chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), the additive that makes sodas like Coke and Dr. Pepper brown, is actually a potential carcinogen, and consuming enough of it puts you at an increased risk of developing cancers.

Scientists at Consumer Reports and the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently collaborated on a study which aimed to determine exactly how many Americans were at an increased risk of cancer due to 4-Mel consumption.

Consumer Reports wrote up the findings:

Among the more than half of Americans age 6 to 64 who drink soda on a typical day, it turns out that the average intake ranges from a little more than one 12-ounce can to nearly 2.5 cans a day. About a third of very young children (age 3 to 5) drink soda on a typical day; the average intake is approximately two-thirds of a can. The biggest soda consumers are in the 16 to 44 year-old age group. Those who drink the most average about three cans a day...

Our analysis shows that at this level of consumption, we would expect to see between 76 and 5,000 cases of cancer in the U.S. over the next 70 years from 4-Mel exposure alone.

"The findings of this comprehensive study have scientific, policy, and legal implications for calculating cancer risk and establishing limits for 4-Mel in food," said Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and the executive director of Consumer Reports' Food Safety & Sustainability Center. "We don't think any food additive, particularly one that's only purpose is to color food brown, should elevate people's cancer risk. Ideally, 4-Mel should not be added to food."

Joanna Rothkopf

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4-mel Cancer Carcinogens Health Soda