This report sheds light on the coloring agent, caramel coloring within the context of a request
made on behalf of the management of Light of the Rainbow Choir (LORC). Caramel color
will be defined in this report, as well as some of its effects as put forth by various governmental and non-governmental organizations. This report will present some of the studies
conducted with caramel color on laboratory animals and the conclusions drawn about human
consumption based on these animal studies. This report also includes a recommendation to
LORC regarding the use of caramel color noting that organized means of pressure have been
employed in an effort to have this coloring agent removed from McDonald’s and other
franchises. Despite the generous economic, as well as convenience aspects, CWS does not
recommend this popular fast food franchise on a regular basis to its members due to the
health/safety findings associated with caramel color.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “fast foods” are a convenient, quick and
easy alternative to home-cooked meals, (Hellisvig-Gaskell, 2020). Given our busy lifestyles,
it was inevitable that at least a portion of our food would reflect this growing reality of our
hurried lives, and have us leaning toward the purchase of fast food from franchises such as
McDonald’s. While McDonald’s and other fast food restaurant chains are heeding the growing awareness regarding nutrition, they still have a long way to go. Fast foods are still abnormally high in sugar, salt, saturated fat, and other unhealthful ingredients (Hellisvig-Gaskell,
2020). One of those other unhealthful ingredients is caramel color. McDonald’s, and other
fast food chains, routinely use caramel color in some of its menu items (Hari, 2018). This ingredient is the one that concerns the management of LORC and asked CWS to find out more
in an effort to help them decide if McDonald’s food should be a regular part of the choir
members’ diet during their many travel days to all 50 states and two Canadian provinces durring a regular performance year.
Light of the Rainbow Choir’s management cares about its members. Like any good
management, it wants their members to be able to give their best – in this case performing on
the road in many venues across North America. Traveling frequently can be taxing on the
body and mind, hence management understandably wants the best fuel for the choir, and at a
reasonable price. Because LORC is on a tight budget, choir members often stay in the most
economical of lodging. As a rule, these places don’t normally offer cooking facilities, and if
they did, the members wouldn’t have time on most days to buy, prepare and cook most of
their own meals. McDonald’s is a possible solution while eating on the road as there are
McDonald’s outlets in virtually all of the cities where LORC performs. LORC’s management would like its members to continue eating at McDonald’s. Management researched the
ingredients and has no problem with any of them except one that it’s not quite sure about:
caramel color. They want to know more about this additive in order to be able to make an
informed decision on whether to formally recommend McDonald’s to its choir members.
Depending on what CWS finds will impact management’s recommendation.
The purpose of this report is to provide information on caramel color in McDonalds’
foods in an effort sought by LORC’s management that wants to be able to give the right recommendation to its choir members. There was some cursory research done by LORC’s
management that made them uncomfortable. This prompted wanting to know more. LORC
has few reservations about the other ingredients in McDonalds’s foods.
This report has a rather narrow scope – one of providing pertinent information to
LORC’s management on caramel color in McDonald’s foods. However, the scope of the
problem of caramel color is large and goes beyond what was asked here. Part of that larger
context will be presented. Caramel color is added to the foods offered at many food franchises and corporations and not particular to only the McDonald’s franchise.
What is it?
Caramel color is a coloring agent. It has zero nutritional value, odorless, has no flavor,
and used only as an aesthetic – the color, brown. This can be a light or dark brown depending on what else is added. Caramel color is common in colas, beer, brown bread, soy
sauce, chocolate, cough drops, rum, custards, and many other food items (Jacobson, 2015).
Smoke and Mirrors
The word, “caramel color” is a misnomer, or at least, a deflection because the word
“caramel” conjures up thoughts of the candy, caramel which is simply white sugar, cream,
milk, butter, and vanilla that are heated to the point just before burning, rendering a golden,
or light brown color when the other ingredients are mixed in. White sugar produces caramel
while the process of heating brown sugar produces butterscotch.
Molecular structure of caramel:
Sugar is not part of a healthy diet, and should not be eaten regularly, however; as bad as
sugar is, caramel coloring is much worse. That’s because caramel color is made in a laboratory, the result of mixing corn sugar with sulfites and ammonia and placed under extremely high temperature and pressure. These ingredients under this process produces 4-
Methylimidazole, or simply referred to as 4-Mel (or 4Mei). Caramel color will be referred to
by its true name of 4-Mel from here on. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)
posits that the term “caramel coloring” is inaccurate due to the sulfites and ammonia used.
The CSPI further maintains that “am “ammonia process caramel” – or words to that effect –
would be more truthful (Cronin, 2011). Dr. Chauncey Crandall, the Director of Preventive
Medicine and Complex Cardiology at the Mount Sinai Heart New York, Palm Beach site,
goes further. He says that “4-Mel is not related to caramel in any form” (Crandall, 2014). In
the United States, McDonald’s uses 4-Mel in 18 of its menu items, among them the burger
sauce, the cola, the McCafe Mochas and chocolate chip frappes, 8-grain and oatmeal English
Muffins (Hari, 2020). In the case of the 8-grain and oatmeal English Muffins, the coloring
makes the products look darker and more healthful (Hari, 2020). 4-Mel has the potential to
cause a number of health problems, but McDonalds’ menu items will continue to contain 4-
Mel until sufficient pressure is brought to bear on its bottom line. The molecular structure of
Cancer in Laboratory Animals Google.com
According to a federal study in 2007, by the International Agency for Research, 4-Mel
causes cancer in mice, and is considered carcinogenic in humans (Hari, 2018). For that
reason, the IAR petitioned the FDA to ban 4-Mel due to the cancer risk to humans. Even
though 4-Mel has been known to be carcinogenic since 2007, there is no federal law to
restrict its use in food (Hari, 2018). In another study, this one conducted by the National
Institute of Health, 4-Mel was found to induce bronchial and alveolar tumors in both male
and female mice, as well as activate leukemia in female rats (Chan, Hills, Kissling, G.,
Nyska, 2007). Additionally, the same study showed the frequency of histiocytosis were
much greater than any of the control groups of both male and female rats, and there existed a
correlation between severity and exposure concentration (Chan, et al., 2007).
Other Adverse Health Effects
In a study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on laboratory animals 4-Mel
produced pancreatic beta cell hyperplasia that led to disruption of glucose and lipid homeostasis.
And chronic exposure to 4-Mel induces hypoglycemia (Balakrishnan, et al., 2018).
NTP and IARC Weigh In
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the National Toxicology
Program (NTP) both list 4-Mel as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” This conclusion was
reached based on the fact that this coloring agent causes cancer in some laboratory animals.
Despite these findings, the federal government has not placed limits on 4-Mel in the food
supply (Tangella, 2017).
Consumer Advocacy Groups See Danger
There are organizations out there alerting us to the dangers of 4-Mel and other questionable additives to our food. Unfortunately, that 4-Mel is recognized as carcinogenic to
humans, does not necessarily mean it will be removed from any of McDonalds’ offerings, or
from that of any other franchise or establishment. That will take effort beyond awareness
that requires another set of energies and abilities. Vani Hari, an American author and food
activist, is one person with just such abilities. Her track record is impressive. Case in point:
in 2015, she and her organization were able to have Starbuck’s remove 4-Mel from its Pumpkin Spice Latte (Hari, 2015). Additionally, in the same year, Newcastle Brewery stopped
putting 4-Mel into all its beers, in large part because of her organization’s efforts against the
use of this coloring agent in her husband’s favorite brand of beer (Hari, 2015).
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)
The CSPI works on behalf of the public. It advocates for food safety and nutrition, with
the consumer’s well-being front and center. The founding member of CSPI, Michael Jacobson, is calling for a complete elimination of 4-Mel in sodas (Tangella, 2017). Michael Jacobson and CSPI have an impressive track record. In 2016, as a result of CSPI’s campaign
against dyes, Mars announced that the company would remove dyes from its M&Ms (CSPI,
2019). That’s just one victory out of hundreds starting in 1973. There are organizations and
people working tirelessly on behalf of all us to rid our food supply of harmful ingredients,
and 4-Mel is recognized as one of those ingredients.
State of California adds 4-Mel to its Proposition 65 List
In 2011, the state of California added 4-Mel to its list of ingredients that can cause
cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive disorders. Any beverage or food that contains in
excess of 29 micrograms of 4-Mel per day is supposed to have the Proposition 65 warning.
(Shepherd, Mullin, Richter, Hampton, 2014). This student contacted McDonald’s and was
told that this was proprietary information. McDonald’s would not share the amount of 4-Mel
in its foods. Instead, this student was cordially referred to a website that was essentially a
commercial for the McDonald’s franchise.
There is no doubt that 4-Mel can be potentially deleterious to living things. The precise
amount of harm is hard to decipher as a number of factors must be taken into account, i.e. the
genetic predisposition of an individual, his/her proclivities to one side of the health spectrum
regarding a particular organ/system, over all general health, weight, sensitivity, and other considerations. Given that 4-Mel can possibly cause cancer and other maladies in both animals and
people, and because McDonald’s considers the amount of 4-Mel in its foods proprietary, CWS
believes one should not partake regularly in McDonald’s foods.
Yes, McDonald’s food is tasty, and economical, and there is a McDonald’s conveniently located
in most every city on the choir’s venue, yet the price in terms of the members’ health cannot be
calculated. Given the many other healthful foods available – albeit gained by a little extra effort
– will go a long way and achieve for the choir members a sustenance worthy of their talented
energy for countless wonderful performances.
- Don’t partake regularly of McDonalds’ fare.
- Eat predominantly unprocessed foods with no fillers, coloring agents, emulsifiers,
thickeners, and similar additives. Real, whole foods from nature don’t need these
additives; they are complete in and of themselves and speak to attaining a level of health
that could never be achieved by eating the offerings of those whose focus is the bottom
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Karuppusamy, K., Shanmugarajan, S., Prerna, K., Gilles, M., Alexander, L.,
Govindan, S., Subbiah, R. (2018, Nov 9). Chronic intake of 4-Methylimidazole
induces Hyperinsulinemia and Hyperplasia and Glucose Dyshomeostasis.
National Institute of Health.
Chan, P., Hills, G., Kissling, G., Nyska, A. (2007, Jul 10) Toxicity and
Carcinogenicity Studies of 4-Methylimidazole in F344/N Rats and B6C3F1
Mice. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from: https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov
Chan, P. (2004, Apr). NTP Technical Report on the Toxicity Studies of 2- and 4
Methylimidazole. National Toxicology Program. Toxicity Report Series No. 67.
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Heart News. Retrieved from: https://chaunceycrandall.com/4-mel-cola-coloring
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Retrieved from: https://www.foodnetwork.ca/healthy-eating/photos/scary-ingre-
Cronin, J. (2011, Feb 16). FDA Urged to Prohibit Carcinogenic “Caramel Coloring.”
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Food Babe. Retrieved from: https://foodbabe.com/breaking-news-major-beer-
Hari, V. (2015). You’ll Never Guess What Starbuck’s Just Announced! (Hint, You
Made this Happen!) Food Babe. Retrieved from: https://foodbabe.com/youll-
Hari, V. (2018). Ingredients to Avoid in Processed Food. Food Babe Kitchen.
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The Menu is Still Full of Them! Food Babe. Retrieved from: https://foodbabe
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