Pepsi’s Big Prop 65 Settlement Reignites Caramel Coloring Debate

Ever wondered what gives cola it’s classic caramel hue? Most soda makers use a food additive 4-Methylimidazole (known as 4-mei or caramel coloring) to achieve that distinctive color.

4-Methylimidazole is certainly hard to pronounce—which might make you think it’s “scary” or unsafe. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its counterparts in Canada and the European Union have all reviewed 4-MEI’s safety and concluded it poses no risk to our health. Unfortunately, those determinations don’t mean much to the state of California.

California lists 4-mei as a “known carcinogen” under its chemical labeling law, Proposition 65, after research showed rats given very large doses of 4-MEI developed cancerous tumors. However, unless you drink more than 1,000 sodas a day, you don’t need to worry about developing cancer from 4-mei. For more on California’s ridiculous ruling on 4-MEI, view our “dose makes the poison” video on caramel coloring below:

Unsurprisingly, soda companies don’t want to sell soda with warning labels. So most companies that used 4-mei in their products reformulated them to meet California’s safety threshold. But that hasn’t made them immune to bounty hunter lawsuits.

Despite reformulating many of its products to comply with California’s ruling, Pepsi just settled a lawsuit alleging it sold sodas exceeding the amount of 4-mei considered “safe” in California. The company agreed to pay the Center for Environmental Health, one of the most prolific filers of Prop 65 lawsuits, $385,000 though Pepsi does not admit it was out of compliance with Prop 65.

In this case, Pepsi is a large corporation with many resources to settle an expensive Prop 65 lawsuit. Smaller businesses hit with these frivolous claims simply don’t have the resources to fight back, even when their products pose no risk to our health. To see the devastating impact these lawsuits can have on small businesses, check out the video below.


No one wants to consume products that are unsafe, but California’s Proposition 65 warning rules are out of control. Read more about the need to reform Prop 65 in our report here.