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Caramel Coloring… a Dark Subject!

Cola_CaramelColoringI decided to do some research on caramel coloring because I get emailed questions from people and rather than sending out separate emails all the time I’d like to give a more detailed answer.  The question I most recently received was about caramel coloring in Coke, so I’ll talk about that specifically, but also the general problems with caramel coloring first. Surprisingly, the first thing you will discover when looking into this is a lot of confusion as to whether caramel coloring is safe to ingest if you have gluten intolerance.

It is surprising because you tend to think (especially when you’re newly diagnosed) in this day and age that ingredients are well-defined both as product inclusions and manufacturing processes. But one person says something and then another person says something else and the next thing you know the truth has been distorted or misquoted. My friend has called this “pooling our ignorance together.” I guess that’s why a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is essential for food safety.

When I research a food ingredient, I often start with the FDA. They are currently working on a proposed rule that defines “gluten-free”. The problem that has arisen for us is that some foods, while they don’t appear to have wheat or gluten containing grains, they do contain the derivatives of them.  So, potentially manufacturers could be labeling products as gluten free or wheat free, when in fact they do contain some gluten.  The question is “how much?”

I don’t know about you, but I get upset when I eat something supposedly gluten-free and then get sick due to a gluten reaction. Anyone who has Celiac disease recognizes the symptoms of gluten exposure. I get stomach pains first.  My girl friend gets stomach cramps, quickly followed by diarrhea because she is more sensitive than me.

The FDA is proposing that any food with an ingredient that “results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food; or 20 ppm or more gluten” cannot be labeled as gluten free.
You’re probably asking yourself right about now what this has to do with caramel coloring! Well, for starters, a product that does not contain gluten may not be gluten free. So my next question naturally is, “Coke does not contain grains, but is it gluten free?”

Caramel coloring is what gives Coke, and other dark colas, the coloring. And caramel coloring is used in other food products too. For example, caramel coloring is in soy sauce, cookies, juices and some seasonings. Caramel coloring can be manufactured using different grains. In the United States, it is normally made with high dextrose corn syrup. But it is also infrequently made with barley. Dextrose is sugar and is safe. Barley is an unsafe starch for a Celiac.

This can be very confusing for people, and I’ve seen it in various forums and in my email box. Some people believe that many of the Coke products are safe to drink. Others think you should stay away from any product containing caramel coloring.

The Coca-Cola company makes this statement on their website:
“We are able to confirm that, in the U.S. and Canada, the following products are gluten free:

  • Coca-Cola classic
  • Caffeine-Free Coca-Cola Classic
  • Coca-Cola Black
  • Coca-Cola Black Cherry Vanilla
  • Coca-Cola C2
  • Coca-Cola with Lime
  • Coca-Cola Zero
  • Barq’s Root Beer
  • Caffeine-Free Barq’s Root Beer
  • Diet Barq’s Root Beer
  • Diet Barq’s Red Creme Soda
  • Diet Coke Black Cherry Vanilla
  • Diet Coke
  • Diet Coke with Lime
  • Caffeine-Free Diet Coke
  • Diet Coke (Sweetened with Splenda)
  • Sprite
  • Diet Sprite Zero
  • Cherry Coke
  • Diet Cherry Coke
  • Fresca
  • DASANI Lemon
  • Minute Maid Light Lemonade
  • Simply Lemonade
  • Simply Limeade
  • POWERade Mountain Blast
  • 100% of juice products (without added ingredients)

Additionally, we can tell you that all of our other products meet Codex’s definition of gluten-free, which is currently less than 200 ppm (parts per million) (0.02%) gluten. Codex is in the process of reviewing this standard and we are monitoring the progress closely. At this time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have a regulatory definition of gluten-free.”

So, this is good news and bad news. The most common Coke products (for the US anyways) are gluten-free. For the rest of them, the problem is the FDA, as I discussed at that beginning of this article, defines gluten-free as 20 ppm, not 200 ppm! According to the recommended FDA definition of gluten free, most of the other Coca Cola products may not be gluten free. That means if you are a Celiac, it might not be a good idea for you to drink the other products with caramel coloring.

So how do you know if caramel coloring is safe? It always goes back to the same procedures I followed for the above product. I ask! If a food product has caramel coloring listed as an ingredient, I need to call the company or check their website and ask them to tell me the parts per million of gluten. If it is over 20 ppm, or they can’t tell me, I don’t eat or drink it.

I think it is tempting for gluten intolerant people to sometimes push the limit of what they can eat or drink. I know this not only from my own life but also from listening to people in the Gluten Free Club and in my email box. It gets tiring always worrying about every food item. Different people have different reactions. Some have minor reactions to minor gluten exposure. Others have major reactions to any gluten. That is one reason the ppm was set so low by the FDA. If you are gluten intolerant, it is always best to play it safe. The long term affects of gluten exposure can be devastating even if you’re not getting really sick. The effects of gluten exposure can be cumulative too.

There are a lot of differing opinions concerning caramel coloring safety for Celiacs. My best advice is to remain cautious, and when in doubt about the safety of any ingredient, don’t eat the food or drink the drink!

Photo Courtesy of Skoot13, Wikipedia
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