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Chemicals in Coke and Pepsi: Cancer-Causing or Worth the Taste?

Updated on September 3, 2012

In response to a California law that requires drinks containing certain levels of carcinogens to be labeled, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have agreed to adjust their drink recipes, rather than add a cancer warning to their products. While some argue that this is another scare tactic of the environmental movement, others may think twice before grabbing a soda.


The California Law

The 1986 California law in question, Proposition 65, aims to protect California residents from chemicals that may cause cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. The law requires the governer of California to publish an annual list of such chemicals and that warning labels be included on consumer products that contain those chemicals.

What This Has to do With Soda

It turns out that the cooking process used to create the caramel coloring in soda products leads to the creation of 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI). At high doses, 4-MEI has been shown to cause seizures in rabbit, mice, and chicks and cancer in rats. As a result, 4-MEI is now on California’s list of probably carcinogens, meaning that companies would need to include warning labels on their products, unless they lower the amount of 4-MEIs found in soda.

The Beverage Industry’s Response

As might be expected, the beverage industry is vehemently opposed to having 4-MEI listed as possibly cancer-causing, insisting that the scientific evidence is weak and that there is no health risk. Just the same, rather than put cancer warning labels on their products, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have decided to change their products to comply with the California regulations.

Should We be Worried?

The U.S Food and Drug Administration claims that an individual would have to drink over a thousand cans of soda a day to reach the levels of 4-MEI necessary to cause cancer.

This may be true, but what this type of statement does not take into account is that individuals are already exposed to many carcinogenic chemicals throughout the day. What happens when you have a couple of 4-MEI-infused cokes per day, wash your hair with shampoo that contains Sodium Laurel Sulfate (possible endocrine disruptors), use fragrances that include phthalates (immune system toxicants that impact the reproductive system), drink out of plastic water bottles that contain Bisphenol A (an endocrine disruptor), and breathe in air that has been toxified by the use of cleaning supplies? This list could go on indefinitely (perfume, deodorant, shower curtain liners, foaming soaps, cosmetics, lotions...). While exposure to any one of these items in isolation may be harmless, what is the effect of low-levels of exposure to multiple harmful substances over time?

The fact right now is that no one really knows what combinations of toxic chemicals may cause cancer or other harmful health effects. It is not considered ethical to expose people to possible carcinogens or combinations of carcinogens to see if they develop cancer. At the same time, it seems like every day a new report comes out identifying another harmful product. Add into the mix that some individuals are more at risk than others due to health conditions or chemical sensitivities, and the potential harm increases.

While the amount of 4-MEI in a few bottles of Coke or Pepsi may alone not cause cancer, combined with the vast array of other carcinogens in our lives, it may indeed cause harm. At the very least, it is yet another data point for those of us trying to navigate the ever increasing array of evidence that harmful chemicals are omnipresent in the air we breathe, in the products we use in our homes, and in what we consume.

Do you think drinking Coke and Pepsi are harmful to your health?

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    • jenbeach21 profile image

      jenbeach21 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

      So informative and eye opening. I can't wait to share it with family members who insist soda isn't that bad for you

    • profile image

      sodaisbad 5 years ago

      We're looking at the first generation of kids who won't outlive their parents. Somethings going on. Whether it's chemicals or the high sugar content, coke is not part of the solution

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 5 years ago from MA

      DanaTeresa, thanks for the comments and good for you for going all natural on foods. I do the same. I don't find it too difficult, but it does mean cooking a lot which I enjoy. Thanks for reading and sharing!

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

      Great Hub. For the past few years I have started limiting my intake of foods with artificial flavorings and any sort of added coloring. It is tough, but I have so may food sensitivities that I need to stay as natural and simple as possible. This is even more encouragement to do so.

      I am going to share this with a friend on facebook who has recently vowed to cut back his soda intake. This should help him stick to it!

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 5 years ago from MA

      Hi Larry: I agree that the level of harm is still questionable, but I also think there is a lack of research and disclosure about the potential harm, and that's what I think is warranted. I don't think waiting until the harm is proven is the right way to go. I also don't trust industry to voluntarily take it upon themselves to identify and report risks - they don't have a very good track record in that regard!

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 5 years ago

      I do not disagree with any of the concerns that people are raising. I will just note, that as a whole, we are living longer than we use to. Maybe our longevity is our own worse problem. Perhaps couples are having children too late in life. Perhaps we are becoming more vulnerable to diseases because as we age our immune system degrades. I do not know the answers. Are there harmful chemicals, yes. But the level of harm and the concentration needed to cause harm is still questionable.

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 5 years ago from MA

      Rajan Jolly: You are right, we are bombarded by many known and unknown toxins every day, in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the products we use. While figuring out what causes disease may not ever be knowable, I think we have a responsibility to try to reduce exposure to things that may cause harm, before it's too late!

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 5 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Laura, this is disturbing. As if the other harmful ingredients in sodas were not enough comes along one more. I agree on their own maybe the chemicals would probably not cause disease due to their low levels but when we are literally bombarded by an array of chemicals in our daily use items, we have to exercise caution in what we consume and use.

      Very informative hub. Voted up, useful. Shared.

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 5 years ago from MA

      Larry: You make an excellent point. Portion sizes have become gargantuan in vending machines and mainstream restaurants. I agree that it would be great for people to exercise moderation, but what would be even better would be for there to be healthier portion sizes and healthier options available to help them along.

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 5 years ago from MA

      Express10: Thanks for reading. You make a very important point that consumers are often not informed of the dangers of chemicals in their surroundings. This is something that I hope can change!

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 5 years ago

      The only other point I can ad is we as a people have changed our lifestyle. When I was a young child, a trip to the hamburger joint was a treat. For some it is a daily occurrence. When I was in elementary school we had candy machines. Could buy a small candy bar for five cents. Now the standard size is at least twice as big.

      If all people would assume a better level of moderation, we might avoid some of the problems.

    • Express10 profile image

      H C Palting 5 years ago from East Coast

      The fact that we are exposed to many carcinogens on a daily basis by our own (informed & uninformed) choice and without a choice is a fact that so many people choose to ignore. This article presents another reason to not drink soda. The fact that the employees cannot get the concentrate onto their skin without painful burns should not be overlooked.

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

      Hi Katharella. There are definitely a wide range of factors - the products themselves, people's individual "body burdens" (i.e., what their body can handle in terms of exposures), exposures to allegens, etc. Different combinations of things impact different people differently, and there are infinite possibilities, which is part of what makes this such a difficult area to study and navigate.

    • Katharella profile image

      Katharella 6 years ago from Lost in America

      Yes, I'm so glad to see on packaging "paraben free." It doesn't mean there's not reason for concern still. I purchased a makeup remover & shampoo & conditioner called YESto, in cucumber scent. Everything about it is natural, well, wouldn't you know I'm in a rare group of people who are allergic to green tea extract! My cheeks were puffed up like a blow fish! While that sounds funny it sent me to a Dr. who told me no more things just because the label deems them safe and healthy, and to head back to paying a higher dollar to avoid future visits!

      I think it's what our bodies are used to as well. I didn't realize it was the green tea until after the craze first hit and it landed me in bed with chills. I tried to chalk it up to something else, but I realized it when I had just finished off a bottle of green tea! I didn't think the extract would be so harsh! We live we learn!

      For most it's great, but as per your hub title, if we can put a rusted nail in a cup of soda overnight and it eats the rust off, what's it going inside us!

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

      Katharella: Thanks for reading and commenting. There is definitely a lot of conflicting and confusing information out there, so we all have to do our best to make decisions that we feel are healthy. Interesting to think about what has changed in the last few decades.

    • Katharella profile image

      Katharella 6 years ago from Lost in America

      Great hubs!! I've actually done some research on some of the things you touched on other than soda. (Our shampoo - makeup - cleaners etc.) In buying makeup I have very little that contain paraben's. There's 4 types (among other chemicals) that can be the cause of cancer. But while I was reading I learned that underarm deodorant is a big culprit. And in thinking about it, sure, at night it's the clean face, brush teeth (fluoride I'm not hip on either)but many women wait til morning to shower for the day, that leaves the deodorant on, and most likely with arms down where a preservative can find it's way quicker to the lympth nodes where most breast cancer is found near the armpit.

      There is one totally paraben free deodorant sold by Sephora, it's $10. for a small size, but one has to decide what their life is worth. I guess right! :) I bought some for my friend whose family has a history of cancer, I'm still just washing a lot because I use safer makeup which is not cheap at all.

      As my dad used to say, (he was born in the 20's) "We never had all this stuff and we weren't riddled with these new diseases or cancer like people are nowadays, and toothpaste only freshens your breath!)lol.. he never used toothpaste, he only used water and he had the best teeth in the family until he died in 09.

      Like you mentioned, our hair routines, so true, mine is very long and I do not wash it more than 2x a week, natural oils are there for a reason. v-up!

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 6 years ago


      I have been having computer problems, so am late in responding. The problem is to figure our all the combinations of relatively safe products that can come together to create problems for different people with specific health problems. The combinations are staggering.

      Also, some harmful things have had useful uses in the past. Arsenic was once used as a medication. It can be poisonous. People who have a wheat allergy have to avoid gluten in their diets. The toothpaste I use has titanium in it to give it the bright white color. Sometimes we learned that certain chemicals are just bad, like DDT, but it was also effective. I take numerous prescription medications. I read all the warning labels and literature, but unless the side effects are really serious for the general population, I take the meds. I just do not think we can identify everything that is harmful or every combination of what is harmful. Considering that our life span is longer than that of our grandparents, we must be doing something right.

      I understand where you are coming from, I just do not see the solution.

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

      Hi Larry. I hear a lot of what you're saying. But, don't you think that people have a right to know what they are putting in their bodies? I just wrote a hub about a recent Silent Spring study that showed that many harmful chemicals aren't even listed on ingredient labels and that even products that are listed as "safer" include chemicals that are known to cause harmful health effects.

      I also absolutely do not agree that our country is doing as good a job as possible to prove things are safe. On the contrary, companies repeatedly fail to disclose information about product safety. Selling is the primary goal and requirements on product testing/ingredient disclore are not stringent at all. Many European countries require that products be proven safe before they are put on the market, instead of waiting for people to get sick. Is this too high a standard when we're talking about people's health and lives? Corporations are highly motivated by the bottom line, and often will do whatever they can to sell a product, even if it is harmful.

      Let me throw out the tobacco example again. 50 years ago, tobacco companies were selling tobacco as "healthy" products. Even after thousands (millions?) had died from tobacco-related illnesses and there the tobacco industry had records that they knew that tobacco products were harmful, multiple tobacco executives swore before congress and testified that they thought tobacco products were safe. Why do we have to wait until tons of people die to ask companies to make a reasonable effort to make their products safe/safer and to let consumers know the real risks of their products?

      Re: your speaker, I do think companies that produce potentially harmful products are in a sweet spot. As I describe in my article, exposure to 1 product that potentially causes risk may not be a big deal for most people. But, exposure to 1000 products that potentially cause risk, could, over time, be a real problem. When we look around at what we're exposed to every day, 1000 exposures isn't that unrealistic.

      I agree, that there is no way to make sure that every products is 100% safe and that different people react differently to different exposures. But, the US could do a much, much better job.

      Thanks for pushing the conversation forward, Larry! ;)

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 6 years ago

      Proving that all products are safe for all consumers is an impossible task. Bread is a safe food source, unless you have the condition where you must maintain a gluten free diet.

      Peanut butter is good--one of my basic food staples--unless you have a peanut allergy.

      A chemical used in one product my be safe for 98 percent of the population, but not for the two percent. Unfortunately, there is no testing protocols that can guarantee 100 percent safety for all products.

      I do not go into candle shops. The combination of scents will set off a sneezing attack like you would not believe.

      In 2001 I was a participant in the Loyola (New Orlenas) University Environmental Institute, which was a group of green and non-green representatives who heard a number of speakers.

      One of the speakers was Janet Kester, Ph.D. She gave a two-hour talk, that she had cut down from her normal four hour presentation, regarding risk factors.

      I cannot recount her entire presentation. However, I believe the point I am about to make is accurate and is not taken out of context.

      She used the example that three parts of chemical XYZ per 10 million parts of air, would result in a cancer risk for 1 person in every 10,000 of the population.

      So you make the assumption that six parts would raise the cancer rate to two persons per every 10,000 and so on.

      She said you cannot make the assumption that a higher concentration will affect more people. Secondly, you did not know if the people affected had other conditions, that made them predisposed to developing a particular type of cancer.

      I have lost relatives to Cancer. I know it is not a disease to be taken lightly. I have also lost friends and family members to arterial damage, colon tumors, diabetes, auto accidents, ALS, heart attacks, etc. Some had lived long and full lives. Others died way too soon.

      My point is that there are so many variables that you can never know if chemical ABC, which appears to be a good preservative, is actually harmful to people who never had chicken pox but have an Hispanic background.

      It is impossible to test every demographic.

      I believe in vaccinations for children. My son was vaccinated for everything and they have not appeared to have caused any problems. Some people are opposed to vaccinations, saying it leads to autism. That link has not been proved. Symptons of autism sometimes do not show up until a few years after the child is born.

      I think in this country we do as good of job as possible of proving things are safe. Some things are able to bypass any regulatory investigation.

      In Louisiana, you can sell food you grow in your garden on the side of the road without any kind of permit. The term "home grown" attacks people interest. However, you have no idea what type of fertilizers were used and what the food was exposed to during the growth season.

      There are always going to be risks. Sometimes the risks are minor.There are two medications that will cause me hives--not life threatening, but bothersome. There are other medications that have improved my health by helping me to control my blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

      With a population as diverse as our, with so many variables and so much demand for new and better products, it is impossible to guarantee that a product is 100 percent safe for all people.

      Probably more than you wanted to know.

      Have a Happy Easter


    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

      Larry, thanks for reading and commenting! As usual, your comments provide lots of good food for thought. I get your point about living life and not being too high strung about every little thing. On the other hand... (there's always another hand, right?) I do think we need to carefully consider the toxins we are exposing ourselves too. There are unexplained, sharp increases in all sorts of diseases that are puzzling (e.g., asthma and allergies in children; various types of cancer). It does seem plausible that one culprit may possibly be the increase carcinogenic agents we are being exposed to in our air, off-gases of various products we use in our daily lives, etc.

      I also would like to see an increased burden of responsibility on corporations to prove that their products are safe for consumers, that air quality is safe in workplaces, etc. rather than waiting until people get sick and die to further explore whether what we're ingesting/breathing, etc. is what's killing us. I've heard repeatedly that the standard in Europe is to prove something is safe before it can be marketed. In the US, something has to be proven unsafe before it is questioned. When we're talking about health, this seems backwards to me. This standard would take the onus off individuals as well.

      What do you think?

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 6 years ago


      As you say, the list goes on. I am a borderline Type 2 diabetic. I have never used sugar in coffee or tea. I do like it on my breakfast cereal. Today, I use Splenda. I have a niece, she has four children. She is very intelligent and like most young mothers want what is best for her children. She is convinced that Splenda is bad. You can find web sites to confirm that. However, we all know you can find web sites to confirm any point of view you want to support.

      First, I agree we are an overweight nation.

      Secondly, I agree we eat too much fast food.

      Third, I agree we do not exercise enough.

      Fourth, We are all going to die--someday.

      Our lifespan is getting longer. In one year I will be older than my father and both grandfathers when they died. My father grew up eating bacon and eggs most of his young life. He ate my grandmother's chicken and dumplings (a food group unto itself that will never be seen again.) My father enjoyed drinking in his younger years and smoked for more than 40 years.

      I do not smoke. I have a glass of wine or a beer occasionally and see the doctor regularly.

      There are steps we can take to reduce our health risks. We can learn to do things in moderation. For example, I do not eat at the movies. The popcorn is not that good and the drinks are watered down and too expensive. The movie is going to last less than two hours, so I do not need a basket of nachos and cheese.

      We can take common sense approaches to improving our lifestyles and our health, without having to put a warning label on everything.

      I drink Coke Zero. I use to drink regular Cokes. I use to drink to many. When I cut down and switched to Coke Zero and watched my carbs, I lost 30 pounds in about two or three months, several years ago. I have gained 10 back--growing older can do that to you.

      If we only live for the sake of living, i.e. worrying about everything we consume, touch or come in contact with, then are we enjoying life or just existing.

      Remember when microwave overs first came out. They would blamed for birth defects, sterility in women and a whole host of other unconfirmed issues. Remember when cell phones were accused with causing brain cancer or something like that. Computers got a bad wrap because they allegedly cause vision problems, and were a source of radiation.

      We have to put things in perspective.

      We do not purchase organic vegetables--they are too expensive. Also, I do not know if organic vegetables are safe because I do not know what parasites might exist, since no fertilizers or pesticides were used.

      I like drinking tap water that is treated with chlorine and goes through a lot of filters. I would hate have to depend on going down to the nearby stream and getting my water--no telling what is in it.

      I guess it is all a matter of perspective.

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

      Thanks Molometer! The list goes on...

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Holy Mackerel,

      Another thing we cannot eat. 'smoked mackerel'

      The Smoking process can produce carcinogens.

      I have heard of other issues with these cola type drinks too.

      The carbonation process can actually make people gain weight.

      Great hub with very useful and interesting content. Votes.

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

      Thanks so much fpherj48! I have a lot of the same questions. I think one answer is that most people aren't paying attention! I think the food/product industry is very powerful and skilled at telling people they shouldn't worry and it's all hogwash. It's sort of an uphill battle, but, like anything, if we can get a critical mass of consumers concerned, maybe over time we can make a difference!

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 6 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      LauraGT....Good Grief.....What shall we do? Is there much of anything, anymore that is Safe to eat or drink? What is healthy...unhealthy...risky...actually good for us? How can we even keep up with the facts?

      My question is....if a vast majority are paying attention and following warnings and suggestions....How have we become the FATTEST people in the world?

      I recently learned that "fast food" is not only "garbage" but that the meats have tons of checmicals infused into them. Isn't that special?

      Thanks for this hub. Very informative!! UP++

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

      Thanks RTalloni. There's a lot of information out there and an unhill battle against big companies. Glad to help sort through it!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

      As much as our society loves the taste, there's no doubt that colas are an unhealthy drink and that they are unhealthy on more than one level. So glad to see this info posted on chemicals in sodas along with your perspective. If people researched just the colorings in these drinks they would rethink their consumption of them.