There’s nowhere 4-Mel to hide


For the last 24 hours I have been accosted by insects. It hasn’t been bad all summer, but during the past day, it’s been awful. Dive-bombing mosquitoes have taken to attacking my lovably stubble-filled face, house centipedes scurry about my feet, and spiders of epic proportions stare at me from the wall as I sleep. This cannot stand.

So I’ve loaded my duty-belt with DEET, tissues and every kind of insect poison one can find, and I went to town. This, I have been told, might have been a knee-jerk reaction. I only have one mosquito bite, saw one spider, and, to be fair, someone else killed the centipede. But I saw a perceived threat to my well-being, real or imagined, and pulled a “California” and decided to respond with a severe knee-jerk reaction.

I mention this because in recent days, a knee-jerk reaction to something completely unfounded by the state of California has reared its ugly head again. And that is a 2011 law limiting the amount of a “cancer-causing substance” in colas.

You might have heard the story last week. A press release from the Center for Environmental Health ( said that Pepsi, but not Coke, still contains a dangerously high level of a “cancer-causing substance.” This made the news, but relatively few (I’m looking at you every single TV news station, local and otherwise,) didn’t do their journalistic duty and actually look into this deadly substance called 4-Methylimidazole. Write that down, because I’m not spelling it again. From here on out, we’re calling it “4-Mel.”

For the chemically savvy, 4-Mel is found in a variety of things, besides Pepsi, such as certain alcoholic beverages, chocolate, breads, coffee beans and even a perfectly browned steak. This trace substance (keyword is trace) is formed naturally when the sugars in these products are cooked. This happens as well in the making of caramel coloring, which is where this “population-killing” toxin is found in colas.

Now, back in 2011, as a knee-jerk reaction to a single study — not a plethora of studies, just one, that was conducted back in 2007 — California decided to severely limit the amount of this chemical found in colas. In response, the cola companies tweaked their recipes to try and limit the substance, rather than having a label that says something along the line of “OMG. Drink me and get cancer you big dummy.”
But apparently, as of July, Pepsi still had a bit too much in the cola, hence the news reports about it potentially causing cancer.

Here is the thing, however. That one study showing a cancer-causing link, was an animal study. I know, they study on animals all the time. But when it comes to 4-Mel, it has also been shown, yet not conclusively proven (keyword here, yet,) that it might help reduce the formation of tumors, especially mammary tumors, in mice and rats. What an awful thing.

Secondly, this lone study, which found that subjecting these mice and rats to astoundingly high amounts of the chemical might be bad (no, really?) never proved a thing when it came to the chemical and humans. In fact, there has never been a link to carcinogenic properties between 4-Mel and humans. The FDA says it’s safe. Heck, after that study was released, FDA spokesman Doug Karas even said that a, “person would have to drink more than a thousand cans of soda in a day to match the doses administered in studies that showed links to cancer in rodents.”

Even better, during the 2011 silly season, toxicologist Dr. James Coughlan, who specializes in animal carcinogens said that during a study on the amount of 4-Mel found in colas in 2010, the amount of 12-ounce cans a woman would have to drink, a day, for the rest of her life, in order to get to the carcinogenic levels of 4-Mel would top 37,000 cans. And for men, a whopping 95,000 cans. At that rate, the sugar and caffeine would kill you first, several times over.

Now, all of this is basically moot at this point. PepsiCo said they will have the formula changed to meet the California requirement by 2014 as long as you buy it in the U.S. The European formula isn’t changing.

So what can we learn from this little incident? First, California is nuts, but we knew that already. Second, whenever a news story claims that something might be bad for you, and just leaves it at that without explaining anything, don’t trust it and look it up yourself (and send some “fan” mail to the reporter telling them to do their dang job). Third is just common sense: everything in moderation.

Chris Hamble is a freelance writer and humor columnist serving newspapers in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and is a lifelong Stillwater resident.