Updated and clarified with a statement from Coca-Cola after the jump.
As if you need another reason to scale back on all that soda pop: NPR and Reuters report that Coca-Cola and Pepsi will change their
recipe manufacturing process slightly to reduce the amount of 4-methylimidazole (4-MI), a chemical that, in very high doses, has been known to cause cancer in animals. In sodas, it's used to give the drinks their characteristic dark caramel coloring.
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The change is not so much a health concern as it is a marketing one. In January, California added 4-MI to its list of known carcinogens subject to Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, which requires businesses to warn consumers when their products contain chemicals "known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicitiy." Had the companies continued to use 4-MI in sodas without modification, then, they would have had to issue a warning label on all bottles, cans and 2-liter jugs. Rather than go through all that trouble, the companies decided to rework the
recipe process and find a way to use less 4-MI to create that signature brown color.
Last Monday, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban certain types of caramel colorings made with ammonia sulfite, including 4-MI, pointing to research linking the additive to cancer in mice and rats. Unsurprisingly, the world's largest supplier of the caramel color told NPR that the CSPI is making much ado about nothing, and that 4-MI is safe. The FDA is taking the middle ground, stressing that one would have to drink more than 1,000 cans of soda "to reach the doses administered in the studies that have shown links to cancer in rodents."
Most importantly, perhaps, Coca-Cola says that its new and improved formula will not affect the taste of its soda.
Update: Coca-Cola released a statement to reiterate: "The caramel color in all of our products has been, is and always will be safe, and The Coca-Cola Company is not changing the world-famous formula for our Coca-Cola beverages. Over the years, we have updated our manufacturing processes from time to time, but never altered our Secret Formula. We have asked our caramel manufacturers to modify their production process to reduce the amount of 4-MI in the caramel, but that will have no effect on the formula or on the great-tasting, high-quality products that consumers expect from us. These modifications will not affect the color or taste of Coca-Cola."