Diet Soda May Contain Yet Another Carcinogen

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For years, we've been hearing that diet soda gives you cancer. Aspartame, the calorie-free artificial sweetener used in most diet drinks, was long thought to be a carcinogen, a theory that was used by many health advocates to scare us all out of our Diet Coke habits. It didn't work, of course — and, anyway, just last month, European health officials published findings suggesting that aspartame is perfectly safe for human consumption. Millions of diet-soda fiends rejoiced and all was well in the low-cal kingdom.

Well, with another day comes another scary warning about diet soda. Recent testing by Consumer Reports suggests that the artificial caramel coloring used in many diet sodas could contain unsafe levels of a chemical by-product that many experts believe to be carcinogenic. It's called 4-methylimidazole, or 4-Mel, and was found in high levels in a number of diet-soda samples bought in California.

Now, the FDA doesn't currently have federal regulations or guidelines for the use of caramel coloring. But, other organizations, including the WHO and the state of California, believe that the evidence against 4-Mel is damning enough to limit the use of the coloring to very low levels. In California, soda manufacturers must keep 4-Mel below 29 micrograms per person per day, which experts say limits cancer risk to one in 100,000 lifetimes of daily exposure. But, since there are no federal standards on the compound, sodas sold elsewhere may contain much more 4-Mel than is safe. In New York, for example, diet sodas typically contain at least four times as much of the compound as those sold in California.

However, 4-Mel's days may be numbered. The FDA was sufficiently alarmed by the Consumer Reports study to announce today that it will conduct a series of new research initiatives to get to the bottom of the caramel-coloring question. Whatever they decide, though, the news can't be good for soda manufacturers' bottom lines. With sales already on a steep decline, maybe a new scandal will be the last straw. (CNN/Time)