10 controversial ingredients found in Coca-Cola

Posted on 2013/08/15

Coca-Cola has been at the center of controversy ever since the fizzy drink first graced the shelves. Myths and rumors are abound about the ingredients used to make Coke. While some of this is either unproven, or blown out of proportion, many of these stories are quite true, and quite disturbing. Let’s take a look at 10 of the most controversial ingredients/contaminants found in Coca-Cola and analyze what scientific studies reveal. This is not so much to scare you into pouring all of your Coke down the toilet, but more to encourage you to inform yourself about what you are drinking.

10. Alcohol

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According to research carried out by the French National Institute for Consumer Affairs, more than half of well-known colas contain tiny traces of booze. Don’t worry though; you would have to drink something like 13,000 cans of the stuff to even come close to being legally drunk. Scientists tested 19 different brands and discovered levels of alcohol as low as 10 mg/liter. As expected, the French study sparked quite a controversy, and divided the Muslim community into pro- and anti-Coca-Cola campaigners. While some Muslims believe that it is irrelevant if the product contains 0.001% alcohol or 100% – it is haram either way – others find it acceptable, since small traces of alcohol can be found in a lot of things, including many fruit-based products.

9. Citric Acid

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Manufacturers commonly use citric acid as a preservative and flavor enhancer. However, contrary to what you might expect, 99% of the citric acid added to drinks and foods does not come from citrus fruits. Extracting citric acid from lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits is far too expensive for the corporations. And so we get the artificial stuff that  you consume every time you sip your Coke. However, any concerns that the citric acid in Coke is bad for you is both erroneous and the result of an undeserved bad reputation. Basically, a study in the British Dental Journal claimed to find a strong link between carbonated beverages and tooth erosion. Consuming at least four glasses of carbonated soft drinks a day was associated with a 252% higher risk of tooth problems in 12-year-olds, and a 513% higher risk in 14-year-old children. This is almost certainly not taking other factors into account, as Coca Cola has a pH of 2.525 (Diet Coke has 3.289,) and while battery acid (an actual corrosive) has a pH very close to 1. In short, citric acid is a very weak acid, and comparing it to something truly destructive has nothing to do with reality. And now we get into more harmful territory …

8. Phosphoric Acid

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Phosphoric acid – also known as orthophosphoric acid – is used as an acidifying agent to add tartness to cola. This, combined with the  huge amounts of high fructose corn syrup mixed in, both mask and balance the acidity of carbonated drinks. A study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which provides reasonable evidence to support the association between consumption of cola and lower bone density. Some studies claim that phosphoric acid lowers the levels of calcium. Moreover, a team of scientists from the US National Institutes of Health has found that drinking two or more colas a day doubles the risk of kidney stones. Now, Coca-Cola contains various acids but as we discussed earlier, none are potent enough to dissolve a nail, tooth or penny in four days.

7. Mercury

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The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has discovered that 9 of 20 tested samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup were contaminated with mercury. The Institute also found that 55 kid-friendly foods and soft drinks contained total mercury, which is any combination of inorganic, organic or metallic mercury. As you can see, there are plenty of products with higher mercury levels than Coke, but the level is still fairly high:

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If you are asking yourself how the heck mercury would have gotten into high-fructose corn syrup, here’s a possible answer: mercury-grade caustic soda and hydrochloric acid are primarily used to separate corn starch from the corn kernel, and to adjust the pH level of the process. The contamination seems to occur when mercury-grade caustic soda and outdated mercury cell technology are used in the production of HFCS. The good news is that mercury-contaminated HFCS is a completely avoidable problem, since mercury-free versions of the two reagents are available.

6. Sodium Benzoate

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Manufacturers commonly use sodium benzoate as a preservative, and you can find it in carbonated drinks, pickles, soy sauce, dressings, jams and fruit juices, cosmetics, medicines, and so on. The International Programme on Chemical Safety, and other regulatory bodies, found no adverse effects in humans at doses of 650 to 830 mg. per day. The effects of higher amounts are unknown, but almost certainly bad, judging by the increased obesity rates all over the world. Sodium benzoate does not occur naturally in foods and drinks. Manufacturers try to confuse consumers by masking these preservatives with labels that say antimicrobial nutrients. If processed foods are not part of your daily diet, there are no risks, but let’s be honest, it is. We all know what an integral part of the modern lifestyle processed, convenient foods are. Coca-Cola is in the process of phasing out the controversial additive in the UK, due to consumer pressure, but fruit-juice based products will still contain it.

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