A critical look at health warnings in Consumer Reports magazine
Let me start by saying that I have nothing against Consumer Reports. In fact, it's my favorite magazine. I've been a continuous subscriber since 1978, and I read every issue. The Consumer Reports articles are well-researched and well-written, and I'm not disputing the background facts presented in them. I'm only questioning the conclusions drawn from the facts, namely, that you should modify your diet to reduce your intake of 4-MEI.
4-MEI in Caramel Coloring Used in Pancake Syrup"Sour news about syrup" says the headline in the May 2014 issue of Consumer Reports. A bold subheading says Pancake syrups can contain 4-MeI, a potential carcinogen. The article goes on to list five brands of syrup and their tested 4-MEI content, ranging from 12 to 38 micrograms per serving. (The same article is available online at the ConsumerReports.org website.)
This looked like a very serious matter until I reached the following paragraphs in the article.
When their experts said the risk becomes significant at 1 in 100,000, I think they meant it's significant for the manufacturer of the product. In other words, that level of 4-MEI in the product might harm somebody, somewhere, so the manufacturer should decrease the 4-MEI in their product as a public health measure. I have no argument with this.
But what does this statistic mean to you, the individual consumer? It means that if you use 1/4 cup of the worst pancake syrup every single day of your life, for decades on end, your risk of developing cancer is increased by 1 in 100,000, or 0.001 percent, due to the presence of 4-MEI.
To put this in perspective, let's look at the average overall lifetime risk of developing cancer for Americans, as measured by the National Cancer Institute and reported by the American Cancer Society:
So for the U.S. population as a whole, the average lifetime risk of developing cancer is about 40%. With daily lifetime consumption of 4-MEI in the worst syrup, your risk increases to 40.001%. Is this a significant increase in risk? Compared with other actions you can take to protect your health and safety (see Box A below), the presence of 4-MEI in your syrup is not a significant issue, in my opinion.
After reading the Consumer Reports article, I went to look at what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has to say about 4-MEI. This is what I found at the FDA website:
Here is an excerpt from the EFSA report:
I believe the FDA and EFSA are evaluating the evidence systematically to reach reasonable policy decisions, without bias one way or the other. They are not in the pocket of the food industry, trying to say that a food additive is safe when it's not; nor do they have any reason to promote or exaggerate any hazards that they find.
Bottom Line on 4-MEI in Pancake Syrup
If you're using artificially colored pancake syrup every day, should you cut back?
Yes, definitely, due to the sugar in the syrup. A 1/4 cup serving of Hungry Jack Original Syrup (the brand found to contain the most 4-MEI) has 210 calories, most of it from the 42 grams (10 teaspoons) of added sugar. In one year of daily use, that adds up to 77,000 calories, equivalent to 19 pounds of fat.
Your risk of developing obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer from the sugar far exceeds the 1 in 100,000 risk of developing cancer from the 4-MEI. The same danger applies to pure organic maple syrup, which has no 4-MEI but has the same sugar and calorie content as artificially colored syrup.
If 4-MEI scares you, and you avoid pancake syrup and cola drinks as a result, it's still a good result because those are unhealthy foods. The same cannot be said about arsenic in rice.
Disclaimers: I'm not a doctor or other health care professional, and I have no special knowledge or experience in medicine or toxicology. I have no connection with the food industry, health care industry, or Consumer Reports magazine (other than being a subscriber). I believe the information here is correct, but errors are possible. Use the information at your own risk. You're encouraged to do your own research to reach your own conclusions about the issues raised. This website is not intended to provide medical advice. Before changing your diet or starting a new exercise program, check with your doctor to make sure that the change is OK for you.
©2014 Gray Chang All rights reserved.