Storm in a can? Coke fights cancer claims
Posted Monday, July 16 2012 at 01:00
- If the US Food and Drug Administration applied its standards globally, a bottle of Coca-Cola would contain under three micrograms of 4-MEI, a substance that tends to cause cancer when ingested excessively, and is produced when starch is heated to acquire a pleasant brown colour. The drinks marketed in California are close to meeting that standard, but those in most other countries, even allowing for lower consumption in most of them, greatly exceed this level. Some researchers say these are double standards, but Coca-Cola disagrees and says its products are safe for consumption
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.