The safety of Coca-Cola products came under scrutiny late last month after USA’s Centre for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) released a report claiming new laboratory tests had shown very high levels of 4 methyl imidazole (4-MEI), a potentially cancer-causing chemical, in the company’s soft drinks.
With its over 86-year-old chemical formula still a secret, questions emerged over the safety of its products, especially in the Third World, where Coca-Cola the company has a significantly strong consumer base in more than 200 countries.
Local Coca-Cola representatives, however, dismissed the report, saying it was full of misrepresentations of fact terming it “irresponsible and malicious”.
CSPI had reported that it had tested samples of the famous Coke brand, including that sold in Kenya, and found out that the product contained large amounts of 4-MEI, also abbreviated as 4-MI, and which has been linked to cancer in animals.
The research, done in nine countries, indicated that the amounts of the 4-MEI in Coke varied from country to country. Kenya was among countries listed as having the highest levels of 4-MEI in Coca-Cola products in local circulation.
Samples tested in California showed that the Coke sold there had four microgrammes of the chemical, Brazil had 267 microgrammes while samples in Kenya had 177 microgrammes.
“Fortunately, people in China, Japan, Kenya, and some other countries drink much less soda than Americans do, so their exposure to this dangerous chemical is proportionately lower,” said CSPI executive director Michael F Jacobson.
“But now that we know it’s possible to almost totally eliminate this carcinogen from colas, there’s no excuse for Coca-Cola and other companies not to do so worldwide.”
However, Dr Gladwell Kiarie, a specialist in cancer working for the Department of Clinical Medicine and Therapeutics at the University of Nairobi, told DN2 last week that there is really no evidence that 4-MEI is harmful to humans if used in small amounts, in food and drinks.
“Animal studies indicate there is a risk of convulsions or seizures,” Dr Kiarie said. “The carcinogenic studies of 4-MEI were confusing because it was protective against cancer in rats but increased the risk in mice. These animals were given massive doses. The amounts in beverages are usually controlled and much less.”
Dr Kiarie added that she was not aware of any type of cancer that could be caused mainly by 4-MEI, and insisted on the need for more research.
The US Food and Drug Administration restricts carcinogenic contaminants in food to amounts that would not cause more than one cancer per million people.
If the FDA applied its standard, a Coke would have to have under 3 mcg of 4-MI. The Coca-Cola marketed in California is close to meeting that standard, but Cokes in most other countries, even allowing for lower consumption in most countries, greatly exceed that standard.
But Peter Njonjo, the Coca- Cola General Manager for East Africa, explained that the varied composition of the caramel “is because it is sourced from different geographical locations across the world”.
“We adhere to the highest Kenyan and international standards on safety of all our products and their ingredients,” Njonjo explained.
“All our bottling partners in East Africa obtain their product concentrate from Swaziland, which also provides concentrate for the manufacture of our products in Australia and New Zealand,” added Norah Odwesso, the Coca-Cola Central East and West Africa Business Unit Public Affairs and Communications Director
Njonjo and Odwesso, however, knew they were not just defending the interests of the company in Kenya, but also globally.
Coca-Cola is not new to controversial reports.
In 2010, the company was accused of having violated FDA regulations by making health claims about one of their products, Vitaminwater (sold in the US), even though it did not meet required minimum nutritional thresholds.
Coca-Cola was said to have used the word “healthy” in implied nutrient content claims even though Vitaminwater’s fortification did not comply with FDA policy, and by using a product name that references only two of Vitaminwater’s ingredients, omitting the fact that there was a key, unnamed ingredient in the product.
Judge John Gleeson of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York found that the company’s use of the word “healthy” violated the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations on vitamin-fortified foods. Coca-Cola was hence banned from claiming its Vitaminwater brand was “nutritious”.
CSPI claimed to have, in 2011, the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit the use of the term “ammoniated caramel colouring” and to use a more accurate term for the ingredient.
“In contrast to the caramel one might make at home by melting sugar in a saucepan, the artificial brown colouring in colas and some other products is made by reacting sugars with ammonia under high pressure and temperatures, resulting in the formation of 4-MEI, which caused lung, liver, and thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory animals.”
On the latest controversy over the chemical composition of the caramel used in the Coke product, the company said it had kept the levels of caramel at globally recommended low levels, and that Coke does not pose any health risk to its consumers.
“To reach the level used by CSPI in their tests, one would have to drink about 1,000 bottles of Coke every day for the rest of their life,” said Njonjo, terming this impractical.
Even then, the company said efforts were being made to lower levels of 4-MEI caramel globally through controls in their supply chain.
On March 9, 2012, the Coca-Cola Company issued a press statement noting that the caramel colour in all of its products had always been safe, and that the company was not going to change the world-famous formula for Coca-Cola beverages.
Coca-Cola however, stated that it had asked its caramel manufacturers to modify their production process to reduce the amount of 4-MEI in the caramel, even though those modifications would not affect the colour or taste of Coca-Cola.
For some consumers, the news was not amusing. Laillah Mohammed is a frequent customer in various fast food joints in town.
Her best meal is French fries accompanied by grilled chicken and washed down with a cold Coke. She is now, however, torn between satiating her appetite for a cold one or ditching Coke altogether.
“That report has really alarmed me,” she says. “I am no longer sure that I am getting the best out of the meals I take. I find myself reaching for the Coke every time I step into an eatery, but that daily ritual is always followed by a bout of regret.”
To others, however, nothing can take the soft drink away from them.
Beryl Munoko is one of those: “As far as I’m concerned, there is no cause for alarm,” she says. “I have consumed this drink (Coke) for more than 20 years and I don’t see why I should stop now over these cancer claims. After all, everything we eat nowadays seems to be cancerous in the eyes of nutritionists.”
Locally, cancer cases seem to be on the increase, mainly due to a measurement bias. There are more diagnostic parameters available, hence more diagnosis of cancer cases not only in Kenya, but worldwide as well. In addition, more treatment modalities are now available, leading to more referrals.
Less stigma leading to greater awareness of the symptoms and forms of cancer has also led to more people seeking treatment, portraying a picture of an increase in the number of cancer cases.
Compound in the news
4-MEI is a compound that can occur naturally when foods containing sugar and protein, like cereals, beverages, baked goods, confectionary products, dairy products, and condiments like soy sauce, are cooked and undergo browning reactions in the process of baking, roasting and frying.
It can also be formed when foods ferment. 4-MEI is present in the caramel colour used in beverages and food colouring.
Caramel is a confectionery product made by heating any of a variety of sugars. It is used as a flavouring in soft drinks, puddings and desserts, often together with ammonium compounds, acids, or alkalis.
It is the most widely used (by weight) colouring added to foods and beverages, with hues ranging from tannish-yellow to black, depending on the concentration and the food.
Caramel colouring may be used to simulate the appearance of cocoa in baked goods, make meats and gravies look more attractive, and darken soft drinks and beer.
When produced with ammonia, it contains contaminants; 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole.
In January 2011, the state of California in the US added 4-MEI to its list of probable carcinogens. Sixteen unigrams per day was stipulated as the “No Significant Risk Level” intake.
This is considerably less than the mean intake of 4-MEI by regular cola drinkers. In March this year, there were reports that both Coca-Cola and Pepsi had their caramel colour suppliers modifying their manufacturing processes in order to meet the new California standard.
At the time of the announcement, the changes had already been made for beverages sold in California, but the recipe did not change in Europe.
A 2007 study by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) found that high doses of 4-MEI were carcinogenic in mice. Similarly, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, in January 2011, listed 4-MEI as a possible carcinogen.
Regulating food colour
ALL food additives are carefully regulated by local authorities and various international organisations to ensure that they are safe to eat and accurately labelled.
The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation and America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintain a list of over 3,000 ingredients in a database, with an explanation of why they are used in foods and how they are regulated for safe use.
Today, food and colour additives are more strictly studied, regulated and monitored than at any other time in history. FDA has the primary legal responsibility for determining their safe use.
In the US, to market a new direct food additive or colour additive for use in food (or before using an additive already approved for one use in another manner not yet approved), a manufacturer or other sponsor must first petition FDA for approval.
These petitions must provide evidence that the substance is safe for the ways in which it will be used.