The February 2014 issue of Prevention magazine identifies four food additives consumers should avoid. Three of them are commonly used in beverages, and all of them have been studied extensively and shown to be safe for human consumption. The article, in addition to pressure from consumer groups, has beverage manufacturers defending their formulations.

The first additive on the Prevention list is artificial food colors. The petroleum-based ingredients have been the cause of controversy since the 1970s, when a pediatrician first identified a correlation of intake to children’s behavior.

The seven synthetic food colors approved for use in the United States are classified by the Food and Drug Administration as color additives subject to certification in Title 21, Part 74 of the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 74). They are certified with an FD&C number indicating that the additive has been tested for safety and is approved for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics, or FD&C.

Though deemed safe, synthetic colors came under additional scrutiny in September 2007 after the results of a British study from the University of Southampton showed a correlation between artificial food colors and exacerbated hyperactive behavior in children. Even though many medical experts questioned the study’s protocol, it created controversy and continues to do so.

The second food additive to avoid according to Prevention is brominated vegetable oil (B.V.O.), which is used as an emulsifier in some citrus-flavored/colored beverages. Bromine is the active component in B.V.O. and is also a compound found in flame retardants. But that’s not the only reason Prevention said to avoid it. Studies have associated excessive consumption with memory loss, fatigue, loss of muscle coordination and more, according to the article.

B.V.O. is banned as a food additive in Europe and Japan but not in the United States. In 1958, the F.D.A. categorized B.V.O. as a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) ingredient, but in 1970 withdrew the designation and now limits its use as a food additive under certain conditions and on an interim basis pending additional research.

“Only a few studies have looked at possible safety issues, but it appears that bromine builds up in the body,” said Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., senior medical editor with the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. “There also have been a few reports of people experiencing memory loss and skin and nerve problems after drinking excessive amounts (more than 2 liters per day) of soda containing B.V.O.”

In response, a number of beverage manufacturers have removed B.V.O. from their products.

Many also are considering alternatives to Prevention’s third food additive to avoid: caramel color. Even though caramel color has received its share of criticism during the past few years because certain versions of it contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), it historically has been ignored by the average consumer.

This interpretation is expected to change in 2014 due to the organization Consumer Reports. The organization recently conducted an analysis of beverages containing caramel color that are currently in the marketplace. In its Jan. 23, 2014, publication, Consumer Reports explained that under California’s Proposition 65 law, any food or beverage sold in the state that exposes consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-Mel per day is supposed to carry a health-warning label. In its analysis, each of the 12-oz samples of Pepsi One and Malta Goya had more than 29 micrograms per can or bottle.

“F.D.A. is taking a look at the science around caramel color and 4-Mel,” Ms. Zeratsky said. “The animal research is inconclusive and the European Food Safety Authority has deemed it as safe for humans. Perhaps the larger picture is the interest consumers have in knowing what is in their food and understanding why it is there.”

Understanding caramel color

Colors are used in foods and beverages because we eat with our eyes first. Caramel color happens to be the most used food coloring in the world, according to a 2013 report from market research firms Mintel, Chicago, and Leatherhead Food Research, United Kingdom. Because it is exempt from certification, it is considered a “natural” color.

The F.A.O./WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives has divided caramel color into four classes depending on the food-grade reactants used in its manufacturing. All four classes are a dark brown material produced during a controlled heat treatment of sugar.

“The four different classes exist based on their means of manufacture and their individual physical properties, rendering them suitable for different applications,” said Jennifer Guild, global food science and regulatory manager for DDW, Louisville, Ky. “They have isoelectric points and pHs that vary over a wide range. When coloring a product with caramel, the particles of the caramel color must have the same charge as the colloidal particles of the product to be colored. If a caramel color is put into a colloidal solution with opposite-charged particles, the particles will attract one another, form larger, insoluble particles and settle out. For example, a soft drink contains negatively charged colloidal particles, and therefore, a negative caramel color should always be used.”

In most beverage applications that may benefit from some brown color, Class IV caramel color seems to work best. In ready-to-drink iced tea applications, Class II and Class IV caramel colors typically are used because their negative ionic charge reacts well with the tannins produced from the tea leaves.

Chocolate milk, in particular chocolate milk sold through the National School Lunch Program, is often colored with Class IV caramel color. This helps keep costs down by reducing cocoa, which is more expensive than caramel coloring, while still providing a deep brown flavored milk. The Class IV helps achieve a uniform chocolate look without settling. The same is true in ready-to-drink coffee-milk beverages.

All four classes are simply declared as “caramel color” on ingredient statements.

“Since all four classes are considered safe by F.D.A., the general consensus is that there is no reason to differentiate between the different classes on U.S. food labels,” Ms. Guild said.

Discerning consumers would likely appreciate knowing the class of caramel color in their beverage as a result of California’s Prop 65 listing of 4-Mel and Consumer Reports’ analysis of the 4-Mel content of various soft drinks. What’s unfortunate is unfounded concern among consumers is creating mayhem in the beverage business.

“The caramel color industry will continue to raise awareness about the poor science upon which California based the Prop 65 listing of 4-Mel in the hope that we will someday stop the influence of this unfortunate decision,” Ms. Guild said. “It is important that we communicate as often as possible that 4-Mel levels in caramel colors are regulated globally and regarded as safe at significantly higher levels than those considered safe by California.”

In the National Toxicology Program (N.T.P.) study that California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment based its decision to list 4-Mel on Prop 65, high doses of 4-Mel showed possible carcinogenic activity in mice.

“For humans to be exposed to the amount of 4-Mel used in these mice studies, humans would have to consume totally unrealistic amounts of food, for instance, 2,900 cans of a cola beverage, per day, every single day of one’s life,” Ms. Guild said. “In another study conducted by N.T.P. using rats, 4-Mel did not appear to cause cancer and instead resulted in a significant reduction in five types of tumors.”

The Consumer Reports study

Consumer Reports tested 81 cans and bottles of various brands of soft drinks from five manufacturers between April and September 2013. The products were purchased in California and the New York metropolitan region. In December 2013, from the same regions, Consumer Reports purchased and tested 29 new samples of those brands that initially had tested above 29 micrograms per can or bottle in either location.

Both rounds of testing found the level of 4-Mel in the samples of Pepsi One and Malta Goya purchased in both locations to exceed the 29 micrograms per serving container. By contrast, in the initial test, some of the other brands bought in California had average levels around or just below 29 micrograms per container, but the New York area samples of those same brands tested much higher. In the second test, the levels in the New York samples had come down. This suggests some manufacturers may be taking steps to reduce levels. In both sets of tests, from both regions, the Coke brand of colas came in under 5 micrograms per container.

As one may imagine, this has the potential to be a public relations nightmare for PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y. PepsiCo released a statement when queried about the Consumer Reports’ study.

“All of our products are in full compliance with the law,” the statement said. “When the regulatory requirements changed in California, PepsiCo moved immediately to meet the new requirements, and all of our products in California are below the California threshold. We are rolling out the changes across the rest of the U.S. and the conversion will be complete this month (February 2014).”

To offer further assistance, the American Beverage Association, Washington, weighed in.

“First and foremost, consumers can rest assured that our industry’s beverages are safe,” the A.B.A. said. “Contrary to the conclusions of Consumer Reports, F.D.A. has noted there is no reason at all for any health concerns, a position supported by regulatory agencies around the world. In fact, F.D.A. has noted that a consumer ‘would have to drink more than a thousand cans of soda in a day to match the doses administered in studies that showed links to cancer in rodents.’ However, the companies that make caramel coloring for our members’ soft drinks are now producing it to contain less 4-Mel, and nationwide use of this new caramel coloring is under way.”

Ingredient options

Eliminating 4-Mel in food is virtually impossible, according to the F.D.A. It is because the chemical compound is never directly added to food; rather, it is formed as a byproduct during normal cooking. For example, in addition to forming during the manufacture of Class III and Class IV caramel coloring, 4-Mel may form when coffee beans are roasted or when meatsare grilled.

In the case of caramel coloring, ingredient suppliers may take steps to reduce its formation during the manufacturing process. In fact, several companies already have reduced the amount. Because caramel color provides a desirable hue at an affordable price, many beverage manufacturers are switching to low 4-Mel Class III and Class IV caramel colors.

Some suppliers are promoting other color alternatives. For example, intensely roasted malted barley ingredients may provide a range of brown hues, much like caramel colors. Some even provide that same burnt sugar taste found in caramel color.

Colors sourced from a variety of plant and plant derivatives, including vegetable juice, beta-carotene, annatto, paprika and turmeric, may provide brown hues ranging from buttery yellow brown to deep auburn. They may be made stable across a wide pH range, even low-pH soft drinks.

To conclude, in case you were wondering, the fourth additive on Prevention’s list was butylated hydroxyanisole, or simply BHA. This petroleum-derived food preservative prevents rancidification of fat-containing foods. Because most beverages are typically fat free, this is one ingredient the beverage industry does not need to worry about.