It’s the most broadly used colorant in existence, accounting for roughly 80 percent of colorants. It is ubiquitous in colas, soy sauce, seasonings, breads, cereals and pet food.
First and foremost, you cannot deny its pleasant color. Eating is a visual process. Foods must look good before someone may be inclined to eat them. Caramel color does just that. Another important reason for its use is expense. Caramel color also allows manufacturers to substitute more expensive ingredients. For example, the powdered forms of Class IV caramel colors can replace up to 50 percent of the cocoa needed for different foods.
One study by the National Toxicology Program showed an increase in certain lung tumors among rodents exposed to 4-MEI, and the World Health Organization considers it a possible carcinogen. The FDA, however, points out that 4-MEI can also be formed as a byproduct from roasting coffee beans or grilling meat, and says that the amount used in studies “far exceeded current estimates of human exposure.” DD Williamson spokesperson Campbell Barnum adds that the rodent studies were done on 4-MEI, not on caramel color. “There has never been a study that has showed any safety issues with caramel color at all.”