4-MEI in Pancake Syrup: Health Hazard Quantified

A critical look at health warnings in Consumer Reports magazine

In this essay, I analyze articles published in Consumer Reports magazine on the chemical 4-Methylimidazole, also known as 4-MEI or 4-MeI, present in artificial coloring used in pancake syrup and cola drinks. I explain why I think the warnings in these articles raise undue alarm and fear among readers.

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.

Two weekly servings of a pancake syrup with the lowest average level in our tests ... would pose a negligible cancer risk, defined as 1 in 1,000,000. That means that if one million people were exposed to a given level of 4-MeI daily over a lifetime, no more than one excess cancer would occur in that group as a result.

But for people who have pancake syrup daily, ... [the] risk increases. At the highest 4-MeI level we found, the risk would be 10 times higher than negligible, or one excess case of cancer in 100,000 people who ate that amount daily over a lifetime. According to our experts, that's the point where the risk becomes significant.

-- Consumer Reports, May 2014    
    2014 by Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. All rights reserved.

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:

Lifetime risk of developing cancer Lifetime risk of dying from cancer

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:

Based on the available information, FDA has no reason to believe that there is any immediate or short-term danger presented by 4-MEI at the levels expected in food from the use of caramel coloring.

To ensure that the use of caramel coloring in food continues to be safe, FDA is currently reviewing all available data on the safety of 4-MEI and is reassessing potential consumer exposure to 4-MEI from the use of Class III and Class IV caramel coloring in food products. This safety analysis will help FDA determine what, if any, regulatory action needs to be taken. Such actions could include setting a limit on the amount of 4-MEI that can be present in caramel coloring. However, in the interim, FDA is not recommending that consumers change their diets because of concerns about 4-MEI.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assessed the risk to 4-MEI from the use of caramel colors in 2011 ... EFSA concluded that they had no concerns about Europeans being exposed to 4-MEI from the use of caramel coloring in food.

-- Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
    Questions & Answers on Caramel Coloring and 4-MEI

Here is an excerpt from the EFSA report:

Based on all available data, the Panel concluded that these caramel colours are neither genotoxic, nor carcinogenic and that there is no evidence to show that they have any adverse effects on human reproduction or for the developing child.

-- European Food Safety Authority
    EFSA reviews safety of caramel colours

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.

Significant Health and Safety Hazards

The next time you hear about the latest health hazard du jour in the news, take a look at the known significant hazards in Box A below. If you can answer "yes" to all the listed questions, you're doing great, and you can consider whether the dangers of 4-MEI, arsenic, chromium-6, BPA, and so on are worthy of your concern. If you answer "no" to any listed questions, focus your attention and effort on those items, and don't worry about what you hear in the news.


Significant Health and Safety Hazards Under Your Control

  • Have you stopped (or did you never start) smoking? CDC

  • Do you maintain a healthy weight? CDC

  • Do you drink alcohol moderately (or not at all)? "Moderately" means no more than two drinks per day for a man or one drink per day for a woman. CDC

  • Do you drive a car only while free of influence from alcohol, drugs, fatigue, and distracting electronic devices? Do you always obey traffic laws and wear your seat belt? NHTSA

  • Do you refrain from using illegal drugs, and from using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes? NIH

  • If your household has firearms, are they securely locked out of sight, and accessible only to responsible, emotionally stable adults? HSPH

  • Do you always wash your hands with soap and water before preparing or eating food, and after using the toilet or taking care of a sick person? CDC

  • Do you exercise at least 30 minutes every day? CDC

  • Do you eat at least five to eight servings of fruits and vegetables every day? HSPH

  • Do you consume no more than one or two sugary drinks per week? HSPH
  • Do you consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day if you are young and healthy, or no more than 1,500 mg per day otherwise? CDC

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.