Colas, diet and regular, contain a variety of potentially hazardous ingredients. Caramel coloring, found in cola, has shown a positive association with risk of hypertension or high blood pressure. In fact, The Journal of the American Medical Association conducted a study and found that it was not the caffeine in soda that raised blood pressure, but rather the caramel coloring that may be responsible for the increased risk of hypertension.
Caramel coloring acts as an emulsifying agent that keeps flavor oils suspended in a solution. It is made by heating food-grade carbohydrates (such as corn syrup) to high temperatures. Usually an acid such as acetic, lactic or phosphoric acid is added to break the bonds between the sugars as it is heated to caramelization. The result is a burnt sugar that is the world’s most widely consumed (by weight) food coloring ingredient. It is not found only in colas, but also in sauces, gravies and baked goods.
One must question why this additive is included in so many products. We are a society that eats with our eyes. Color is the first impression that “sets the table” for other sensory experiences. Caramel coloring gives breads a deeper shade of brown, provides beer with a full-bodied appearance and lends baked goods a uniform appearance.
The FDA reports that the absolute safety of any food coloring substance can never be proven. The decisions about the safety of color additives are made on the best scientific evidence available. Because scientific knowledge is constantly evolving, federal officials often review earlier decisions to assure that the safety assessment of a food substance remains up to date. For the time being, caramel coloring is on the GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) list. However, within this same listing, you will find high fructose corn syrup and some artificial sweeteners, products with known health implications.
My advice? Read the ingredient labels on the food products you purchase. The higher the ingredient is on a label, the more of the ingredient there is in that product. Purchasing food items that have a shorter list of ingredients usually means getting foods closer to their original, naturally occurring form and less of a chance for that food to contain color additives and chemicals.
- Wolfgang, C., et al. (2005). Habitual Caffeine Intake and the Risk of Hypertension in Women. JAMA, 294:2330-2335.