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Caramel color in pancake syrup may pose a health risk

Some contain the potential carcinogen 4-MeI, Consumer Reports finds

Last updated: April 28, 2014 12:00 PM

Pancake syrup is far less expensive than pure maple syrup, but those savings come at a price. Caramel color is often used to give the syrups their amber hue, and some types can contain 4-MeI—a potential carcinogen. This chemical has been shown to cause cancer in mice, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, says that it may cause cancer in people as well.

Consumer Reports tested four brands of pancake syrup that contained caramel color and one brand of pure maple syrup as a control. In earlier tests, we measured 4-MeI levels in soft drinks from manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Goya, and ­PepsiCo. (Read "Caramel Color: The Health Risk That May be In Your Soda.") For both tests, we purchased samples in California and the New York metro area.

All of the pancake syrup samples contained 4-MeI. The ­average levels ranged from 11.5 to 38 ­micrograms per ¼ cup, the serving size specified on the label. (Though 4-MeI can form during the heating process that converts maple sap to syrup, our samples had less than 1 microgram per serving, an amount our experts deem insignificant.)

Although neither our syrup nor our soft drink test was large enough to draw conclusions about individual brands or to recommend one brand over another, the samples of Hungry Jack (J.M. Smucker) and Aunt Jemima (Quaker Oats, owned by PepsiCo) contained somewhat higher average levels of 4-MeI than the samples of other syrups. In our test of soft drinks, we found the highest 4-MeI levels in the samples of Malta Goya (Goya Foods) and Pepsi One (PepsiCo). For example, the average levels per 12 ounces in our December 2013 test for the California and New York samples respectively were 316.1 and 307.5 micrograms in Malta Goya and 39.5 and 160.8 micrograms in Pepsi One.

What other foods contain caramel color? Read "Caramel Color and Your Health" for the answer.

The amount of 4-MeI in syrups is much less of a concern than the amount in soft drinks because people tend to consume soft drinks more often, in many cases daily. On average, adults and children who eat pancake syrup regularly do so about twice a week, according to our analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and a national survey of 974 parents conducted recently by Consumer Reports.

Two weekly servings of a pancake syrup with the lowest average level in our tests (Log Cabin Original) would pose a negligible cancer risk, defined as 1 in 1,000,000. That means that if one million people were exposed to a given level of 4-MeI daily over a lifetime, no more than one excess cancer would occur in that group as a result. Two weekly servings of any of the syrups in our tests would still be close to negligible.

But for people who have pancake syrup daily, as 4 percent of children between the ages of 1 and 5 do, according to our survey, risk increases. At the highest average 4-MeI level we found, the risk would be 10 times higher than negligible, or one excess case of cancer in 100,000 people who ate that amount daily over a lifetime. According to our experts, that’s the point where risk becomes significant. And if consumed daily, none of the pancake syrups had low enough 4-MeI levels to reach the negligible risk level.

The types of caramel color that can have 4-MeI (class III and class IV) also are used in products from soy sauce to baked goods. Every little bit adds up, increasing risk.

The fact that we found little 4-MeI in some of the samples of soft drinks and pancake syrups we tested suggests that it is possible for manufacturers who use caramel color to minimize the 4-MeI in their products. Consumer Reports is urging the Food and Drug Administration to set standards for 4-MeI in foods. Companies should also be required to list the type of caramel color that they use so that consumers can avoid 4-MeI if they choose.

What we found in our tests

Consumer Reports tested a total of 28 samples of pancake syrups that listed caramel color on the label and pure maple syrup (as a control). We purchased our samples at grocery stores in California and the New York metropolitan area in May 2012 and April through July of 2013. (The maple-syrup samples were bought in New York.) Because there was little regional variation in our samples, the table below lists averages for the products purchased in both locations. Our study provides a snapshot of the market, but it was not large enough to recommend one brand over another, or to be indicative of levels that would always be found in any given brand.

Brand (manufacturer) Average amount of 4-MeI
in ¼ cup (micrograms)
Hungry Jack Original (J.M. Smucker)

38.0

Aunt Jemima Lite (Quaker Oats)

33.0

Aunt Jemima Original (Quaker Oats)

  30.1  

Mrs. Butterworth’s Original (Pinnacle Foods)

21.0

Log Cabin Original (Pinnacle Foods)

11.5

Maple Grove Farms 100% Pure Maple Syrup (B&G Foods)

0.7

Editor's Note: Consumer Reports teamed up with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future to do the testing and risk assessment. This project was made possible by donations to the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center. This article also appeared in the May 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

   

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