Caramel coloring in food and beverages is not new and not uncommon. It is the most commonly used food coloring in the world. It can be found in everything from breads to sauces to soda to even steak and liquor. And, unfortunately, a lot of ready-to-drink (RTD) bottled teas.

If you’re a regular viewer of broadcast television in the US, you probably have seen ads for Gold Peak tea and the like. They’re marketed to be like the tea you’d brew yourself at home, just in a bottle. In fact, their slogan is “The taste that brings you home”. So how different from home brewed tea could it be? Quite a bit actually. Let’s talk about caramel coloring.

The coloring used in the food industry is different from what you might make in your own kitchen, in that instead of the coloring coming from cooking sugar down into a caramelized paste, this caramel color can be the result of heating a number of different carbohydrates with or without (usually with) acids, alkalis, or salts. It generally has a bitter flavor when added to foods, and is why many foods that contain caramel color will have extra sugar added.

Caramel coloring is used both as a simple food coloring, but also as a preservative and an emulsifier, which helps keep foods on the shelf longer and prevents mixtures from separating.

Caramel coloring has come under fire for years, especially relating to sodas. California has put it on their list of possible carcinogens, and hence the common label of “This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects”. But is this true of all caramel color?

Types of caramel color

There are four types of caramel colors used in the food industry, each with different chemicals and applications:

Classes III and IV are the reason California has problems with the coloring. The presence of ammonium compounds in the production process creates what is known as 4-MEI, and this has been shown in studies to cause cancer to mice (but not rats. Part of the problem here is that we are not sure which test animal is more like a human in this regard). Laws in California control the amounts of this in products like soda, but having more than one can of pop a day will certainly put you over these amounts.

What about tea?

The important question here is: what kind of coloring is used in RTD teas? The answer: it depends.

A good number of RTD teas use Class I caramel coloring, which doesn’t have any 4-MEI, and which is safe.

But just as many RTD teas use Class IV, which does produce 4-MEI. How can you tell which is being used? Outside of a scientific investigation, it’s impossible to tell.

Bottom line

There is still debate as to whether or not caramel color is bad for you. Some question the amounts of 4-MEI given to the mice in the study and claim that in order to achieve the amounts to give you cancer you would need to drink the equivalent of one thousand cans of pop per day.

Why is it in tea in the first place? Besides the preservative qualities, it is likely the coloring is added to give extra color to an otherwise diluted tea. RTD teas are often diluted in order to counteract the bitterness caused by antioxidants. Yes, that’s right: RTD teas have fewer antioxidants than real brewed tea. So you’re not really doing yourself any favors by drinking bottled tea in the first place.

So whether you’re wary about caramel food coloring or not, if you want the real deal, make sure to read your nutrition labels, even for unsweetened tea. There is good bottled tea out there, you just have to look. And if you’re looking for a good source of antioxidants, just brew at home.