Think that sugar is the only thing you have to worry about in your soda? Think again. Research released by Consumer Reports early Thursday reveals that 4-MEI, a substance commonly called “caramel color” on nutrition labels, is found in high risk amounts in several food and beverage items despite known links to cancer.

“There’s no reason why consumers should be exposed to an avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food brown,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, toxicologist and executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety & Sustainability Center. “Manufacturers have lower 4-MEI alternatives available to them. Ideally there would be no 4-MEI in food.”

What is 4-MEI?

4-MEI, or 4-methylimidazole, is a chemical compound that is created in some food and beverage products as they are prepared. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 4-MEI isn’t a food additive. It forms as a “trace impurity” during the manufacturing of caramel coloring used to color cola beverages and other items. The FDA says that research on 4-MEI as a cancer-causing agent has been inconclusive, but the agency does acknowledge that National Toxicology Program research shows an increased incidence of lung tumors in mice after 4-MEI exposure. According to CNN, both the World Health Organization and the state of California say the chemical could possibly cause cancer.

The government is reassessing its data on the safety of products containing 4-MEI but does not currently place any federal limits on 4-MEI in food and beverage items. “Eliminating 4-MEI in food is virtually impossible,” the FDA said. “However, in the case of caramel coloring, companies can take steps to reduce its formation during the manufacturing process. In fact, several companies have already reduced the amount.”

4-MEI Levels In Soft Drinks

Consumer Reports conducted a study by testing 81 cans and bottles of popular soda brands between April and September 2013, then again this past December. All of the beverages were purchased in either New York or California. Under California law, food and beverage manufacturers have to limit the amount of 4-MEI in their products. According to CNN, foods exceeding the limit must carry a warning labels that read: "WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer."

The Consumer Reports study tested for levels of 4-MEI that exceeded 29 micrograms per can or bottle, which is what California considers a “safe” amount. Of those tested, most of the products purchased in California fell below 29 micrograms of 4-MEI, while the products tested in New York had much higher concentrations of the beverage. For instance, Pepsi from New York averaged 174 micrograms per bottle or can during tests from April to September. But the what researchers found wasn’t all bad. When they tested those same Pepsi products in December, they found that they averaged about 32 micrograms. “The fact that we found lower amounts of 4-MEI in our last round of tests suggests that some manufacturers may be taking steps to reduce levels, which would be a step in the right direction,” Rangan said.

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What You Can Do

For now, if you want to avoid 4-MEI exposure, just try not to consume products that list “caramel color” or “artificial color” on their labels. Though it’s feasible to reduce levels of 4-MEI in products, the government doesn’t impose any limits on it. And, according to the American Beverage Association, that’s because the industry’s beverages are safe.

"First and foremost, consumers can rest assured that our industry's beverages are safe," the American Beverage Association said in a statement, CNN reported. "Contrary to the conclusions of Consumer Reports, FDA has noted there is no reason at all for any health concerns, a position supported by regulatory agencies around the world. However, the companies that make caramel coloring for our members' soft drinks are now producing it to contain less 4-MEI, and nationwide use of this new caramel coloring is underway."