Is Your Cola Giving You Cancer? We Explain.


You might have heard yesterday that drinking certain types of soda may increase the risk of cancer. This is true! But, like most shocking headlines, there’s far more to it than what it sounds like. Here’s what’s actually happening.

Look, just give it to me straight, will drinking brown sodas give me cancer?

Maybe. But probably not.

Whaddaya mean, maybe?!

Here’s the deal: Your brown sodas are generally colored using processes that create small amount of 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MEI. It’s not a direct additive. It forms in certain types of caramel coloring added to food. So, first of all, whatever the conspiracy theorist you know from high school may insist on your Facebook feed, soda companies are not deliberately adding cancer-causing agents to your food. But secondly, there is a potential carcinogen in your soda or anything food-like that you buy from the store that’s brown, actually, depending on the coloring they use.

Oh, uh… that doesn’t sound good.

And you’d be right! However, lost amid the screaming about how Diet Coke is giving you cancer is what Consumer Reports actually said. Which is:

Among the more than half of Americans age 6 to 64 who drink soda on a typical day, it turns out that the average intake ranges from a little more than one 12-ounce can to nearly 2.5 cans a day… Our analysis shows that at this level of consumption, we would expect to see between 76 and 5,000 cases of cancer in the U.S. over the next 70 years from 4-MeI exposure alone.

I’m lazy, do the math for me.

Okay: According to studies, 48 percent of all Americans drink soda. That’s about 152 million people. Of those soda drinkers, roughly 43 percent are getting cancer anyway, or about 65 million people. So, worst case scenario, exposure to 4-MEI will increase those numbers by… let’s see here, ballpark, about .00008 percent.

That’s… much lower than the headlines made it sound.

Math is fun!

Should I be worried about this?

Somebody’s got to beat the odds and get cancer from this, and I’m guessing you don’t want that. Similarly, even if it is relatively minor, companies should probably not be including products that may potentially kill their customers, long term, into their food. Especially when that involves just switching to a type of caramel coloring that doesn’t have the potential carcinogen in it. Besides, there’s a simple solution to this.

You’re about to tell me to stop drinking so much soda, aren’t you?

Nah, you probably get that lecture enough from daytime TV and jerks on social media already, you don’t need me piling on. Instead, I’ll suggest you write to your favorite soda company, include the research, and politely ask them to leave the carcinogen out of their products in the future. That’s actually productive, and you might get coupons for free soda!

You could also support Consumer Reports’ campaign to set a safe level of 4-MEI in food. Considering caramel color is added to essentially anything you eat that’s brown, from bread to meat products to that disgusting fake-ass pancake syrup, that’s probably a good idea.