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Published on March 3rd, 2015 | by Alastair Gilmour

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Is the future still brown?

The recipe for Newcastle Brown Ale is changing to keep customers in the US happy, after drinkers across the Atlantic worried it contained a carcinogenic food colouring. 

Heineken, the company that brews the iconic beer, says it will get rid of the chemical 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) which helps give the drink its distinctive colour. The Dutch drinks giant took the decision even though the European Food Safety Authority has twice ruled that it is safe.

The US Food and Drug Administration also considers the colouring to be harmless, but Heineken has bowed to pressure from US consumer groups who are still anxious about the ingredient, saying it was “listening to consumer concerns”, while adding that roasted malts would now be used to achieve a similar colour.

A Heineken spokesman said: “We can confirm we are in the process of changing our recipe for Newcastle Brown Ale. Caramel colouring is found in many of the food and beverage products that we all enjoy – including many beers – and is permitted by recognised food standards bodies.

“The amount used in Newcastle Brown Ale is well within the recommended safe levels set by these bodies; however we listened to consumer concerns that have been expressed particularly in the US and chose to review our recipe. The change will be phased in to new stock over the coming months and only when we have confirmed that colour and taste meet the precise standards called for in the beer’s specification.”

But should we be worrying about 4MEI and how does it get into such a well-known product? We asked Ian Brown, associate lecturer in food studies at Northumbria University.

A beer lover himself, he says: “The compound 4-methylimidazole is not directly added to food, rather it may form when coffee beans are roasted or when meats are roasted or grilled, or when barley is malted. It also forms as a trace impurity during the manufacturing of certain types of caramel colouring (known as Class III and Class IV) that are used to colour cola-type beverages and other foods.”

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Alastair Gilmour



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