What Are The Negative Health Effects Of 4-MeI In Soda?

What Are The Negative Health Effects Of 4-MeI In Soda?

Health & Wellness
Contributed byKrish Tangella MD, MBAOct 30, 2017

4-Mel (or 4-MEI) is an organic chemical compound that is an abbreviated form of 4-Methylimidazole. 4-Mel is contained in the ‘caramel coloring’ that is imparted to many sodas, soft drinks, and other foods, to give them its brownish color. Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research, a market research firm, reports that caramel color is one of the most widely used food coloring in the world (in 2013). 4-Mel is a known animal carcinogen that is also formed as a by-product in certain manufacturing industries such as agricultural chemicals, pharmaceuticals, rubber products, and dyes and pigments. A worker may be occupationally exposed to 4-Mel during the course of their work.

Both the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists 4-Mel as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” since it was researched that this synthetic coloring chemical could cause cancer in mice (lung tumors were observed) on long-term exposure. However, 4-Mel is still being used, since the federal government has not prescribed any limits on its usage in foods and beverages. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) argues that a person has to consume over 1000 cans of soda to reach a cancer-causing harmful dosage. The FDA also informs that all caramel colorings do not contain 4-Mel (only Class III and Class IV contain the chemical). The American Beverage Association exclaims that there is no scientific evidence to prove that 4-Mel is a threat to humans. However, drinking too much soda is not advised by many healthcare providers, for various other health reasons. For example, the American Heart Association (AHA) advises the public to limit their soda intake to as few as 3 cans per day.

Apart from being an ingredient in soda, 4-Mel is also contained in beer, soy sauce, coffee, and bread. The chemical may also be formed during various food and beverage preparation such as through normal cooking process or even during roasting of meat or coffee beans. High concentrations of 4-Mel are known to be an irritant to the skin, eyes, and the respiratory system; though, such exposure occurs only in the chemical-based industries.

Nonetheless, the California’s Proposition 65 law states that any food product or drinks sold in California with over 29 mg of 4-Mel must contain a label informing consumers of the potential risk of cancer. Due to this, a few of the giant soft drink makers, such as Pepsi and Coke, have now lowered levels of 4-Mel in beverages sold in the state of California. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) tested sodas from other nations and found that many contained several times (in between 2 and 10) the limit of 29 mg set per California state law. The CSPI calls for a complete elimination of 4-Mel from colas, since Americans are generally known to drink more sodas than people of other nations. Though, the FDA says that eliminating 4-Mel in foods is virtually impossible!

Additional Resources:

Jacobson MF. Carcinogenicity and regulation of caramel colorings. Int J Occup Environ Health 18(3):254–259. 2012.

CSPI. Petition to Bar the Use of Caramel Colorings Produced with Ammonia and Containing the Carcinogens 2-Methylimidazole and 4-Methylimidazole. Washington, DC:Center for Science in the Public Interest (16 Feb 2011). Available: http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/caramel_coloring_petition.pdf

OEHHA. 4-Methylimidazole (4-MEI) Fact Sheet. Sacramento, CA:Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, California Environmental Protection Agency (updated 10 Feb 2012).

http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/121-a126/ (accessed on 01/11/2015)

http://consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/01/caramel-color-the-health-risk-that-may-be-in-your-soda/index.htm (accessed on 01/11/2015)

http://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/ucm364184.htm (accessed on 01/11/2015)

http://oehha.ca.gov/public_info/facts/4MEIfacts_021012.html (accessed on 01/11/2015)

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Chan, P. C., Hills, G. D., Kissling, G. E., & Nyska, A. (2008). Toxicity and carcinogenicity studies of 4-methylimidazole in F344/N rats and B6C3F1 mice. Archives of toxicology, 82(1), 45-53.

National Toxicology Program. (2007). Toxicology and carcinogenesis studies of 4-methylimidazole (Cas No. 822-36-6) in F344/N rats and B6C3F1 mice (feed studies). National Toxicology Program technical report series, (535), 1.

Moretton, C., Crétier, G., Nigay, H., & Rocca, J. L. (2011). Quantification of 4-methylimidazole in class III and IV caramel colors: validation of a new method based on heart-cutting two-dimensional liquid chromatography (LC-LC). Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 59(8), 3544-3550.

Buckee, G. K., & Bailey, T. P. (1978). EXAMINATION OF SOME BREWING MATERIALS AND CARAMELS FOR THE POSSIBLE OCCURRENCE OF 4‐METHYLIMIDAZOLE. Journal of the Institute of Brewing, 84(3), 158-159.

Lee, K. G., Jang, H., & Shibamoto, T. (2013). Formation of carcinogenic 4 (5)-methylimidazole in caramel model systems: A role of sulphite. Food chemistry, 136(3), 1165-1168.

Was this article helpful

On the Article

Krish Tangella MD, MBA picture
Approved by

Krish Tangella MD, MBA

Pathology, Medical Editorial Board, DoveMed Team


Please log in to post a comment.

Related Articles

Test Your Knowledge

Asked by users

Related Centers


Related Specialties

Loading card

Related Physicians

Related Procedures

Related Resources

Join DoveHubs

and connect with fellow professionals

Related Directories

Who we are

At DoveMed, our utmost priority is your well-being. We are an online medical resource dedicated to providing you with accurate and up-to-date information on a wide range of medical topics. But we're more than just an information hub - we genuinely care about your health journey. That's why we offer a variety of products tailored for both healthcare consumers and professionals, because we believe in empowering everyone involved in the care process.
Our mission is to create a user-friendly healthcare technology portal that helps you make better decisions about your overall health and well-being. We understand that navigating the complexities of healthcare can be overwhelming, so we strive to be a reliable and compassionate companion on your path to wellness.
As an impartial and trusted online resource, we connect healthcare seekers, physicians, and hospitals in a marketplace that promotes a higher quality, easy-to-use healthcare experience. You can trust that our content is unbiased and impartial, as it is trusted by physicians, researchers, and university professors around the globe. Importantly, we are not influenced or owned by any pharmaceutical, medical, or media companies. At DoveMed, we are a group of passionate individuals who deeply care about improving health and wellness for people everywhere. Your well-being is at the heart of everything we do.

© 2023 DoveMed. All rights reserved. It is not the intention of DoveMed to provide specific medical advice. DoveMed urges its users to consult a qualified healthcare professional for diagnosis and answers to their personal medical questions. Always call 911 (or your local emergency number) if you have a medical emergency!