April 13, 2012

8 Min Read
The Cola Wars, Part 1: Starting on Common Ground

Douglas J. Peckenpaugh, Community Director of Content/Culinary Editor

The term Cola Wars was coined back in the 1980s to describe the advertising and marketing tactics that pitted the signature sodas from The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo against each other, often with a distinct undercurrent of competitive chippiness that sought to continually elevate one above the other. Of course, the direction and tone of marketing campaignsalong with the slogans, new introductions, and the never-ending stream of celebrity spokespeoplecontinually shift with the times, and messages generally come across as less combative these days.

But dont be fooled. The Cola Wars are far from over. These soft-drink giants continue to ceaselessly battle it out on the national and international stage, in retail and foodservice. And with expanding mass medialike social networks and the Internet in generaland foreign markets, the playing field has simply grown larger and more complex, continually raising the long-term stakes. Factor in that consumer perceptions of carbonated beverages like soda have been changing as people alter dietary patterns, along with their perceptions of specific ingredients traditionally included in sodas, and the battle heats up.

So while multiple factors continue to keep Coke and Pepsi ever at competitive odds (which will form the basis of future installments of this new, ongoing series of articles appearing here on the Food Product Design website), they also share some common ground, most notably the same shifting customer basea collective group that has some distinct, progressively louder opinions on the ingredients in todays consumer products. And most recently, that common ground was distinctly centered on Californias Proposition 65.


4-Methylimidazole Is in Food?

The newswires were recently abuzz with stories reporting that both Coke and Pepsi products contained 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), a naturally occurring, organic chemical formed as a result of the Maillard reactionand one that exists as a result of this reaction in the caramel colors commonly used in colasthat, at high levels, has been shown to cause cancer. This connection led to the State of California listing 4-Mel on its Prop. 65legislation in the state that requires clear and reasonable warning before exposure to a toxic chemicalwhich meant products containing sufficiently high levels of 4-Mel would require a cancer warning label on the product, proclaiming, Warning: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer.

Clearly, action was required to mitigate this situation.

So Coke and Pepsi dropped the gauntlet: The suppliers of their caramel color needed to fine-tune the ingredients so they would have low enough levels of 4-MeI to avoid the cancer warning labels. These changes would not just take place in products sold in the State of California, but nationwide.

But although this bombshell just hit last month, our story actually begins back in March 2009 when Californias Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) first stated its intent to list 4-Mel in Prop. 65. It was at that point that we became aware of this issue, and we contacted ITCA (the International Technical Caramel Association) and advised everyonewhich includes other manufacturers and main users of caramel color, mostly the soft-drink industryabout this, because we do know that caramel color does form 4-Mel, says Margaret Lawson, chief science officer, D.D. Williamson. Its actually a very common compound thats formed during the browning reaction. Its also in coffee, formed when you roast coffee beans. It could be in anything that is browned, such as baked goods. Its pretty much a ubiquitous compound that is formed during the heating of carbohydrates, whether a food or beverage is produced commercially or cooked at home.

The science behind the listing of 4-Mel in Prop. 65 was published by the National Toxicity Program (NTP), a recognized Authoritative Body by the State of California (Archives of Toxicology, 2008; 82(1):45-53). They fed rats and mice large levels of 4-Mel, says Lawson. Because the mice formed tumors, the state said that it could be a carcinogen, so they said they were obligated to list it in Prop. 65.

But edible products werent part of this pictureat first. 4-Mel was originally listed under Prop. 65 primarily due to its use in the photography industry, where it can exist at high levels in photographic chemicals. The State of California was surprised to learn that its formed, albeit in very minute amounts, in foods and beverages, notes Lawson.

So the industry began explaining the scientifically validated safety of caramel color to OEHHA. Since March of 2009, the food and beverage industry has been providing the State of California with considerable information on the background of caramel colors and the history of all the toxicity and safety testing thats been done over the last 20 or 30 years, says Lawson, and theres never been any issue with caramel color as being a carcinogen or as being unsafe for consumption by humans.

Despite the scientific documentation outlining the safety of caramel colors provided to the State of California, it stuck to the stipulation that OEHHA cannot question or evaluate the science behind a authoritatively published report connected to Prop. 65.

But the science behind the NTP study wasnt completely sound. Actually, in order to be considered a carcinogen, a chemical needs to show carcinogenicity in two species, says Lawson. In this particular study, the mice formed tumors. They were lung tumors, so there should have been the question as to why there were lung tumors formed, as this was not an inhalation study, it was an ingestion studybut again, that science could not be questioned. In an interesting twist, the rats actually improved their health by consuming 4-Mel. In the end, the state decided that male and female mice are two species, and they would accept the NTP report, she says.

Seeking Safe Harbor

Instead of stipulating that food and beverage manufacturers completely remove 4-Mel from products sold in the State of California, OEHHA scientists set a safe harbor number for ita level of exposure that OEHHA has decided does not pose a significant cancer risk when consumed at typical levels over an individuals lifetime. So any products at or below this safe harbor level do not require a warning label.

Once the March 2009 intent to list was posted, we immediately started looking at our process and at our ingredients to be able to determine how we could minimize the levels of 4-Mel, says Lawson. The maximum federal level of 4-Mel permitted in Class IV caramel colors is 250 ppm. This is still the number published in the Food Chemicals Codex. We have always been in compliance, with our products being under 250 ppm of 4-Mel. However, they had never measured 4-Mel at the extremely low levels now required by the State of California. So we had to develop testing methods in order to measure the product, and we had to understand how to control the formation of 4-Mel while still remaining within the constraints of the federal definition of caramel color, which is clearly spelled out in the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations). Weve been able to look at the ingredients, the processing, the times, the temperaturesall within the parameters that are outlined in the CFR. But besides being able to minimize the levels of 4-Mel, we needed to make sure that we retained the properties that are of value: the color, the flavor and some of the emulsification properties that caramel color provides for the soft-drink industry.

It was also vital to make the ingredient a drop-in replacement with no need for reformulation. Our goal was to find a 1:1 replacement so that cola manufacturers would not have to alter their concentrates that they send to their bottlers, says Lawson, and so that consumers would not see or experience any difference in their taste experience with the product. We are pleased that our research has resulted in a patented process to produce Class IV caramel colors that, when used in soft drinks, meets the low 4-MeI levels requested by our customers.

A Matter of Perspective

During their research, D.D. Williamson brought in James Coughlin, Ph.D., a toxicologist with Coughlin & Associates, who has scientific expertise in the browning reaction, plus Prop. 65 compliance. He looked at the levels of 4-Mel that were fed to the rats and the mice in the NTP study to determine the equivalent number of colas people would need to drink to hit those levels. Early last year, a spokesperson from FDA estimated that the equivalent number of sodas consumed would be around 1,000 (Time, Feb. 17, 2011).

Although that number is clearly beyond the capacity of any human being, it was way off the mark.

If you look at a typical level of 4-Mel that would be in a cola today, says Lawson, Coughlin found that a woman would have to drink 37,000 cans a day for life to equal the lowest dose that the female mice were fed. A man would need to consume 91,500 cansthose are 12-oz. cansper day, for life, to equal what the male mouse was fed.

Absurdities aside, this process of fine-tuning the composition of colas to mitigate a labeling issue also serves another purposealigning the products more closely with consumer desires. While caramel color has been clearly determined as safe and no action was likely necessary, the Prop. 65 listing, and the subsequent media coverage that attracts, casts a shadow of doubt. In order to maintainand continue buildingconsumer confidence, a reaction was necessary.

While action in this case clearly stemmed from the desire to avoid negative labeling stipulations, consumer perceptions of various ingredients in foods and beveragesas the population progressively enters into debates on every aspect of food production, from farm to forkoften catalyze product redesign. Expensive reformulation is never taken lightly, but its vital that the food industry remains in touch with what consumers, en masse, want and believe.

Stay tuned for future installments of Cola Wars. And for some behind-the-scenes Coke and Pepsi insight, see Coca-Cola® Co. and PepsiCo® Management Examine Building a Beverage Brand.

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the health and nutrition industry.
Join 37,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like