Just the facts. From the experts.

Who would have thought that a mingling between some friendly oxygen molecules in water, sugar and a bit of heat could result in what is known as caramelization? As the heat from the water turns into steam, the sugar breaks down, creating a browning reaction complete with a burnished brown color and a nutty flavor profile.

Outside the home kitchen, this color and flavor profile is recreated using caramel colorings, which may be labeled on a food package as artificial colors and flavors. There are four classes of caramel colorings.

Just as in the oxidation process of caramelization, all reactions have the possibility of creating a chemical by-product. 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) is the chemical compound created during the cooking process of some caramel colorings. Class I and Class II caramel coloring do not contain 4-MEI but there is potential for the creation of 4-MEI in Class III and Class IV caramel colorings. These colorings are currently under review with FDA to assess all available data on the safety of 4-MEI through exposure to Class III and Class IV caramel colorings.

So, should you avoid foods and drinks with caramel coloring? That’s up to you, but it’s important to note that the National Toxicology Program stated that consumers would need to consume excessive quantities of food and drinks containing Class III and Class IV caramel colorings to achieve exposure that would be even mildly dangerous.

Where can you find caramel coloring?


Caramel Coloring Uses

Class I

high-proof alcohol flavors


Class II

vegetable extracts and Cognac


Class III

beer, sauces, gravies, baking


Class IV


soft drinks

Source: DDW (D.D. Williamson)

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