Back to Pointing At Science
Not content with catalyzing a change to the recipe for Coca Cola and Pepsi in 2012, an unfortunate misinterpretation of science has now caused the Heineken brewing company to announce this week that it too will follow suit and modify the recipe for it’s beers in the US market.
The culprit is the ‘caramel colour’ compound 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), which California law requires to be labeled as a carcinogen. Now normally I would react to this by thinking ‘great, another artificial chemical removed from the human food chain’ BUT there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye and it highlights once again how science has been misinterpreted and led to what is probably a needless reaction.
The compound 4-MEI is a naturally occurring one, it arises due to heating and browning of foods and may also be a fermentation product – so if you enjoy some barbecued food with your beer (or Coke or Pepsi) I suspect you are exposed to a lot more of this compound than if you simply have a few drinks. Indeed the only study to link 4-MEI to carcinogenic activity was in mice and to replicate the dose in humans would require you to drink a wopping 1,000 cans of Coke a day! The Heineken company are to replace 4-MEI with a roasted malt colouring, which although it sounds more benign will also contain a suite of compounds that arise from the heating and browning process, so I am not convinced that food safety is really addressed here – although any move to more natural ingredients is a good one in my view.
Too many studies identifying potential dangers in food and beverage products are done in mouse or rat model systems and the dose regime is often several orders of magnitude above what a human would ever reasonably be expected to consume. However, these can fuel sensationalist and inaccurate stories that nonetheless may strongly influence consumer choice. A science ethics issue arises here in that I believe such science is reckless. In my field of molecular ecology I cannot imagine a peer review process accepting such indirect evidence, yet it seems that when it comes to human health studies that too often sound experimental design and reasonable interpretation are overlooked if there is the hint of a ‘story’. Such studies are picked up by media outlets through trawling the science press, and so the blame unfortunately lies fair and square on the scientists for what they may often perceive as harmless ‘value added’ statements in their work, identifying potential broader relevance of their studies – but unfortunately this is also sometimes due to authors over-stretching the meaning of their data. Indeed as a journal editor for the Nature Publishing Group this is often my biggest single gripe for weak submissions.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority have concluded that current levels of 4-MEI in beer and cola drinks are of no concern. Thus while both Coca Cola, Heineken and Pepsi have already confirmed their change in manufacturing process US-wide, it seems that this may be due to pressure arising from misinterpretation of a scientific study! This is why despite the fact that neither company is changing it’s manufacturing process outside the US I believe we are quite safe whether we choose a beer or a cola with our good old Kiwi barbecue this summer!