Coke or Pepsi? The Age-Old Question, But With A New Twist

by Teesta Bose on February 18, 2014

Image from the Sydney Morning Herald (

Image from the Sydney Morning Herald (

Few would argue that soda is actually good for you. It contains, among many other questionable ingredients, phosphoric acid, which is linked to lower bone density, and high fructose corn syrup, which is “fine in moderation” but also linked to obesity, hypertension, and type II diabetes. If these ingredients and their risks don’t faze you, here’s another, lesser-known reason to consider avoiding soda: caramel coloring. You might be thinking, “What’s wrong with caramel coloring? It sounds natural, unlike food dyes like FD&C Red No. 40.” In a sense, you’re right; after all, heating water and sugar makes caramel.  However, soda manufacturers like Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola use much more complicated methods to achieve that distinctive caramel coloring, methods that haven’t always been harmless.

In 2011, the Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) commissioned a watchdog group to chemically analyze Coke and Pepsi products in California. The group found high levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), a by-product of the chemical reaction between ammonia and sulfites that gives cola its characteristic caramel coloring (Lab tests, 2012). 4-Mel is also a known carcinogen that has caused lung, liver, and thyroid cancer, as well as leukemia, in rats and mice, so products exceeding 29 mcg are required to have warning labels (Chai, 2013). Because there is no federal benchmark for 4-Mel, the CSPI used the California benchmark of 29 micrograms (mcg) per day to evaluate the sodas.

The group found Pepsi products to contain between 73 and 82 mcg per 12-ounce can and Coca-Cola products to contain between 103 and 113 mcg per 12-ounce can (Lab tests, 2012). In early 2011, the CSPI shared these results with both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola in addition to petitioning the FDA to ban ammonia-sulfite caramel coloring. In response, both companies vowed to remove the toxin from their products.

 Over two years after making their promises, only one company has fulfilled theirs. As of July 2013, Coca-Cola had nationally modified its caramel coloring process to significantly reduce the levels of 4-MEI to almost untraceable in their products, while Pepsi-Cola had only modified the process in California, where there is a stipulated amount of 4-Mel a can of soda can contain without requiring a warning label. Pepsi promised to have made changes in its coloring process nationwide by February of 2014 (Chai, 2013). 

You probably have remembered it is now February of 2014 and if you’re wondering if Pepsi has made any changes to their products, the answer is…no. A can of Pepsi-Cola outside of California contains between 32-174 mcg of 4-Mel, a range that still exceeds the benchmark of 29 mcg and also inexplicably increased from the CSPI report in 2011 (Caramel colored, 2014).  Pepsi is hiding behind a “per day” component of California’s benchmark, arguing that the state’s standard applies to a per day exposure, not per can exposure. The company claims that government data shows most people consume less than one-third of a can of soda a day, which puts their products in-line with the state’s regulations (Leinaweaver, 2014). This makes sense, in theory; however, I have never seen anyone open a can of Pepsi, drink one-third of it, allow the remaining two-thirds to become flat, and drink the remaining two-thirds in the following two days. 

 If you live in California, your Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola products are produced without 4-Mel, which is great. Cancer is one less risk you consider when drinking soda. For the rest of us, Pepsi products still contain an abnormally high level of 4-Mel per 12 ounces. I would like to see cancer removed from the risks associated with drinking cola, especially when the caramel coloring process can be modified to remove 4-Mel. Until Pepsi has implemented a nationwide change in its coloring process, I personally will not be drinking their products. I guess I’m left with Coke products….but do I drink Diet or regular?

Works Cited:

Chai, Carmen. (2013). Coke changes recipe; Pepsi still contains cancer-causing chemical, US watchdog says. Retrieved February 4, 2014 from contains-cancer-causing-chemical-u-s-watchdog/

Caramel colored carcinogens in soda. (2014). Retrieved February 4, 2014 from     colored-carcinogens.aspx

Lab tests find carcinogen in regular and diet Coke and Pepsi. (2012). Retrieved   February 4, 2014 from

Leinaweaver, Jeff. (2014). Are there carcinogens in your soda? Retrieved February 4, 2014 from

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