What is Caramel Colour?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Caramel colour is found in many commercially produced foods. Some examples of processed foods that might contain caramel colour include:
- brown bread,
- 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?
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
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
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.