Carcinogen in cola drinks: Indian subsidiaries of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola fail to act

Soft drinks giants contemplate tweaking production in the US

By Aradhika Rathore
Published: Wednesday 28 March 2012

The recent move by the State of California's Environmental Protection Agency to list caramel colouring chemical added to colas as a potent carcinogen might have forced the soft drinks giants to rethink their production process in the US. But their subsidiaries in India seem unperturbed. The additive 4-MEI is used to gives the rich mahogany tint to the colas.

Close on the heels of the additive being named as a cancer-causing agent, the Indian Beverage Association (IBA) under which the two cola giants—Coca-Cola and PepsiCo—come downplayed the move as “baseless misperception”. The agency, in a statement on March 13, said the use of caramel color, with the current levels of 4-MEI (4-methylimidazole), does not suggest an unfavourable health risk; at least, not for the Indian consumer.

A March 2012 study by Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit in the US, had found that Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi contained high levels of 4-MEI, much above the permissible limit of 29 mgs set by Californian food laws.

IBA contends that caramel is the oldest natural food colouring substance. But experts say IBA is missing the point. Questions are being raised about the caramel produced using ammonia-sulphite (also termed as 150d) which is used as an ingredient in the drinks, they say.

Environmental support groups say the additive should be removed from the ingredients’ list in India too. It is the responsibility of these two companies to standardise their decision for global consumers, they add. 

“We want these companies to come clean on this issue and implement the same standards in India. However, their silence on this issue so far indicates that they don't plan to change the manufacturing process in India voluntarily,” says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general at Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-profit. In such a case, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) must intervene and enforce the standards, he adds.

But the FSSAI is mum on the issue. Repeated efforts to seek their response failed. Even the beverage stock being sold in the markets has not been tested post the study to confirm 4-MEI levels.
Ashim Sanyal, secretary of Consumer Voice, an online consumer awareness magazine, says, “If it is bad for the US, it’s bad for India too. It is as simple as that. We have already written to FSSAI.”




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