What is Caramel Colour?

picture of a can of diet coke
Colas contain a large amount of caramel colour per serving

In the food industry, caramel colour is a water soluble colouring that ranges from pale yellow to dark brown.  It is one of the oldest and most widely used food colourings.


It might sound obvious, but it is called caramel because it is formed by a process called caramelization.  Caramelization is the controlled heating of carbohydrates (sugars) usually in the presence of acids, alkalis or salts.  The process takes place under high temperatures and pressures.  Caramel colour has an odor of burnt sugar and a slightly bitter taste.

There are four classes of caramel colour.  Each class is defined by its manufacturing process and has limits on preparation and use.

Plain Caramel:

  • Also called caustic caramel or spirit caramel.
  • No ammonium or sulfite compounds can be used during manufacturing.

Caustic Sulfite Caramel:

  • Sulfite compound can be used during manufacturing, but ammonium compounds cannot be used.

Ammonia Caramel:

  • Also called baker’s caramel, confectioner’s caramel, or beer caramel.
  • Can be prepared in the presence of ammonium compounds but sulfite compounds cannot be used.

Sulfite Ammonia Caramel:

  • Also called acid-proof caramel or soft drink caramel.
  • Prepared in the presence of both ammonium and sulfite compounds.

Common Uses:

Caramel colour is found in many commercially produced foods.  Some examples of processed foods that might contain caramel colour include:

      • beer,
      • brown bread,
      • chocolate,
      • cookies,
      • spirits and liquor such as brandy, rum, and whiskey,
      • potato chips,
      • gravy browning,
      • ice cream,
      • sauces and dressings,
      • soft drinks (especially colas)1

Side Effects / Health Issues:

Does Caramel Colour Cause Cancer?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says yes, and have petitioned the FDA to ban certain types of caramel colouring.

Why?  During the manufacturing process, certain chemical reactions result in the formation of 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole; chemicals the state of California classes as carcinogens (cancer causing substances).

Recently, the CSPI reported finding unsafe levels of these chemicals in Coke and Pepsi.  Oddly enough, the same week both companies announced they were changing their processing methods to reduce the levels.  The cola companies say the CSPI report is flawed and that the caramel colouring does not pose any risk to humans, but they do not want to put a carcinogen warning on their cans which is what would be required under California law.2

The FDA appears to side with the cola companies.  They claim that a person would have to drink 1000 cans of cola a day to risk cancer.4

E Number:

In general, the E number of caramel colour is 150.  However, since there are different classes of caramel colour, there are letters appended to the number to identify them.

    • Plain caramel has an E number of 150a
    • Caustic sulfite caramel has an E number of 150b
    • Ammonia caramel has an E number of 150c
    • Sulfite ammonia caramel has an E number of 150d

Personal Notes:

There are a lot of reasons to avoid drinking colas.5  When I read about the use of caramel in sodas, it is easy to become suspicious.  We know that these companies are rich and powerful.  Would they knowingly continue to use a cancer causing substance to avoid loosing money?  Could they use there power to influence the FDA?

Although the cancer risk from caramel colour may be low, I think it might be better to avoid it when possible.

Avoid these kinds of chemicals.  Buy and cook your own fresh unprocessed food.


  1. UK Food Guide
  2. Food Safety News – Cola Carcinogen Debate Bubbles Over
  3. Wikipedia – Caramel Colour
  4. Reuters – Coke, Pepsi Make Changes
  5. Fooducate Blog – Another Reason to Quit Cola

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1 Comment on “Caramel Colour

  1. That is interesting, I had missed that story about caramel color. Of course there are many other reasons to avoid soda. I’m amazed how many people are hooked on soda, some on the regular kind and some on diet soda. I’d like to gather and post some tips on how to quit drinking soda, I know it’s a hard process for many.

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