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Chemical found in cola causes cancer, watchdog warns: What does FDA say?

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(CBS News) Can drinking soda cause cancer? A report yesterday from the U.S. consumer watchdog The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said popular sodas contain high levels of a chemical that's used to give cola its caramel coloring - and  that chemical could raise a soda-drinkers' cancer risk.

Today U.S. regulators downplayed the report, telling the public that they can continue to drink soda without fearing this ingredient. According to Reuters, the regulators claim that contrary to the public-interest group report, the Ingredient found in cola products from PepsiCo Inc., Coca-Cola Co. and other companies pose no cancerous health risks.

In yesterday's report, the consumer watchdog found Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group Inc's Dr. Pepper and Whole Foods' 365 Cola contained unsafe levels of the coloring Ingredient, 4-methylimidazole or 4-MI. The group estimates the amount of 4-MI in the Coke and Pepsi products tested is causing about 15,000 cancers among the U.S. population.

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The tests also revealed that the quantity of the Ingredient was over four times the amount set by California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

"Coke and Pepsi, with the acquiescence of the FDA, are needlessly exposing millions of Americans to a chemical that causes cancer," CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson said in a written statement, adding the color is clearly cosmetic and serves no value in adding flavor to the drink.

A spokesperson for the FDA told CBS News by e-mail that they are currently reviewing the Citizen Petition submitted by CSPI and are working with manufacturers to determine the actual usage of these caramel colors and the amount of 4-MI found in colas and other food products. Upon completion, the agency will determine whether the food grade specification limit for 4-MI is at an adequate level.

A spokesperson added that it was important to note a consumer would have to drink more than a thousand cans of soda a day to reach the level administered to rats that developed cancer in the studies.

WebMD reported that toxicology results have revealed that 4-MI can cause cancer in lab animals, but it has not been linked to causing cancer in humans.

The American Beverage Association also slammed CSPI's findings. It said in a statement, "This is nothing more than CSPI scare tactics, and their claims are outrageous. The science simply does not show that 4-MEI in foods or beverages is a threat to human health."

Coca-Cola Co. told CBS News that the CSPI claims were "erroneous allegations," pointing out that besides the California board mentioned in the study, no other regulatory agency that deals with public health has stated that 4-MI can cause cancer in humans. "The caramel color in all of our ingredients has been, is and always will be safe. That is a fact," Ben Sheidler with the Coca-Cola Co. public affairs and communications office told CBS News by email.

Whether you're worried about the potentially-cancer causing chemicals or not, the CSPI says soda drinks should be more worried about the high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars used in soft drinks. Soda drinkers are more likely to be obese, get diabetes, and other health problems, a fact that the organization and the government agrees on.

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