Looking at the Research: Caramel Color

It is hard to learn to educate yourself on what is good and bad for your health. With our Looking at the Research series I hope to offer you the means to do it a little more simply, simply through practice at reading research papers. Today’s paper we will be looking at is Food caramels: a review. I recommend you take some time to read this article and then get the overview from the writing here. As you can tell from the article title, this is a review paper, looking at the research from many different studies so that it can be more easily compared. This is why we look at reviews; it is faster.

Caramel color is classed into four different categories yet are generally labeled all as the same thing on our packaged foods. I: plain or spirit caramel, II: caustic sulfite caramel, III: ammonia caramel, IV: sulfite-ammonia caramel (soft drinks). Each of these have different levels of color and taste that are added to foods and each is best suited to be added to different kinds of food based on their interactions with different kinds of food molecules (such as fats) and temperatures (in cooking).

When cooking, class I caramel can be made by heating sugar (carbohydrate) and ‘burning’ it. Producing caramel is done similarly with different reactants. The wide variety of reactants leads the carbohydrates to form different kinds of caramel color. Usually these combinations all contain milk protein and a low moisture content. Once cooked, caramel is easily added to water to alter the color of various foods and is used in place of synthetic colors (often a blend of FD&C Red #40, FD&C Yellow #5 (or #6), and FD&C Blue #1 are mixed together to form brown).

If caramel color is being used as an alternative to synthetic colors, is it safe?

  • ‘Safety of caramel color III has been questioned during recent years following feeding studies in the rat that were associated with reduced white cell and lymphocyte counts.’ This shows a potential reduction in immune capability with ingestion of color III.
  • Other studies saw no changes in investigated factors after 7 days of 200mg/kg body weight a day. Keep in mind this is short term.
  • Caramel color IV, used in soft drinks was studied in rats. No toxicologically important findings were made. Some radioactivity was found in some rat tissues but there was not correlation between single and multiple doses suggesting this was not due to the coloring.
  • Caramelized sucrose (class I) was tested for mutagenic activity. Looking directly at the article cited here, it is clear to me that this review article incorrectly quoted their citation. Can you spot it? This study did find their caramel solution to have mutagenic activities in some of the yeast strains studied but not all. When you find things that do not make sense, be sure to go to the source.

When it comes to the safety of caramel color, this review paper has determined that they are safe to use. This does not mean that everyone will never have any problems with caramel color as the study focused on mutations in genes of yeast and bacteria rather than any other physiological change that could possibly occur in humans. Since this review was done, caramel color class III has been further studied for its 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI) content. While the FDA has stated that this compound is safe, companies like Coke and Pepsi have still chosen to remove this class of caramel color and others from their sodas for fear of public disinterest. California’s Proposition 65 law requires 4-MeI containing products to carry a cancer warning label.

As with all things we put in, on, and around our bodies it is best to experiment with them to determine how our own bodies interact with them. It is best to keep a journal of your experiences and to document changes in your physiology and mood to support determining the causes of your symptoms. Try things and pay attention. Seek balance. Keep researching.

Jillian Carnrick, founder and manager of The Dancing Herbalist, has a Masters of Science Degree in Herbal Medicine, practices as a nutritionist, and is a Certified Personal Trainer and Exercise Is Medicine Professional through the American College of Sports Medicine. The Dancing Herbalist posts on this blog every Thursday. For more of our posts, join us on Patreon. Jillian also presents regular live classes in The Dancing Herbalist’s home herbalist courses online. For more learning opportunities or to work one-on-one with Jillian with her wellness and herbal consultationsvisit The Dancing Herbalist.com.

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