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Coloring in cola linked to potentially higher risk for cancer

It's well established that regularly consuming soft drinks -- even low-calorie ones -- is a proven fast track to weight gain, diabetes and obesity. Some people call soda the new smoking and it may be for good reason.

Research has found that 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), the chemical that gives cola its appealing caramel color is a potential carcinogen. There aren't any federal regulations that restrict use of 4-Mel, but according to the report, more than half of Americans between age 6 to 64 drink enough soda on a regular basis to elevate their cancer risk.

For the study, recently published in PLOS One, researchers from the Consumer Reports and the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tested 110 samples of cola and other soft drink beverages. The sodas were purchased in New York and California.

All of the samples, except for the clear beverages, contained 3.4 to 352.5 micrograms of 4-Mel per 12-ounce bottle or can.

While there aren't federal regulations on how much of the chemical manufacturers can put in beverages, California does require companies to include a cancer warning label if the drink contains more than 29 micrograms in a 12-ounce bottle or can.

Consumer Reports conducted this study as follow-up to another report published in 2013 to estimate the average American's soda consumption in a 24-hour period. For that study, the researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2003 and 2010. Then the researchers used that data to determine the average soda drinker's cancer risk.

The average person age 6 to 64 drank as much as two and a half cans of cola per day. Approximately one-third of children between ages 3 and 5 drank two-thirds of a can each day. People between age 16 and 44 were the most frequent cola drinkers, consuming as many as three cans per day. Through this analysis, the researchers concluded that within the next 70 years, there could be at as many as 5,000 incidences of cancer directly related to cola consumption.

Soda can shorten your life, study suggests 01:56

In recent years, research on 4-Mel has prompted soda drink manufacturers to make some changes to their formulas to reduce the levels of the chemical in their beverages. In 2012, Coca Cola announced it would be switching to a low-4-Mel formula, while still maintaining the product has always been safe.

But cracking down on the soft drink industry won't completely eliminate the chemical from the American diet. Unfortunately, dark-colored carbonated beverages are not the only source of 4-Mel. The chemical is also used in soy and barbecue sauce, pancake syrup and some soups.

Many experts believe the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval guidelines for food additives, especially those used to change or improve color of foods and beverages, are too lenient compared with the regulations set up in other countries. Many chemicals commonly used in food in the U.S. are banned elsewhere because of their potential health risk. Recent research links many different food dyes approved for use in the U.S. to increased risk for ADHD, allergies and cancer.

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