The Return of the caramel-colored scare

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest s (CSPI) renewed war against a caramel coloring ingredient in sodas, known as 4-methylimidazole (4-MI), is making headlines again, unfortunately. (Although we do appreciate that at least Reuters had the good sense to emphasize the FDA s refutation of CSPI s latest claims.)

To refresh your memory: Last year, CSPI petitioned the FDA to declare 4-MI a carcinogen and ban it from sodas. As we noted the first time we covered this, we expected CSPI s claim to be a dead-end news item. Not so fast. CSPI's alarmist cries were quickly picked up by the media, even though FDA spokesman Doug Karras noted that [a] consumer would have to consume well over a thousand cans of soda a day to reach the doses administered in the studies that have shown links to cancer in rodents."

We d like to send a copy of our classic Holiday Dinner Menu to Michael Jacobson, executive director of the ironically named Center, who regularly warns us about the alleged dangers of trace amounts of rodent carcinogens in consumer products. ACSH s Menu is prefaced with some food for thought from renowned UC-Berkeley biochemists Dr. Bruce Ames and Dr. Lois Swirsky Gold: No human diet can be free of naturally occurring chemicals that are rodent carcinogens. Of the chemicals that people eat, 99.99% are natural."

The ACSH menu s appetizer tray alone (which includes rodent carcinogens such as benzaldehyde, caffeic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and quercetin glycosides all found in cherry tomatoes) would probably keep him busy for a while. And clearly, Jacobson needs something to occupy his time, since he feels the need to dredge up the caramel coloring scare.

Because we re loath to devote any more time to the caramel coloring scare than necessary, let us link you to our earlier (and what we hope is not annual) discussion of caramel coloring. For further commentary, we recommend our own Dr. Josh Bloom s take on the topic, over at Medical Progress Today.

And, finally, we ll point you toward a highly relevant commentary in The Lancet Oncology, in which cancer researcher Dr. Bernard Stewart discusses how public fixation on what we perceive to be insidious carcinogens in our food and environment diverts our attention from actual risks from factors that we can control such as our weight, how much we drink, and whether we smoke. (It s just easier to fulminate about, say, caramel coloring than to exercise regularly or quit smoking.)

Anxiety concerning insidious cancer causation, writes Dr. Stewart, a professor at the University of New South Wales, could divert attention from proven means of cancer prevention. Truer words.