A widely used caramel food colouring, found in soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, contains two cancer-causing chemicals and should be banned, a U.S. consumer advocacy group told the Food and Drug Administration Wednesday.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says two approved versions to colour food products include ammonia and produce compounds that caused cancers in animal studies. According to the CSPI, there are four kinds of caramel colouring approved by the FDA, two with ammonia and two without.

The group is petitioning for a ban of the ammonia-containing caramels, which contain the substances it says are carcinogenic: 2 methylimidazole (2-MI) and 4 methylimidazole (4-MI).

"For a cancer-causing chemical, cancer experts agree that there is no safe level. That the greater the amount, the greater the risk," CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson told CTV News Channel in an interview from Washington.

"But even at very low levels, there's a proportionately small risk. And in this case, the contaminants are not highly potent carcinogens… it's the kind of small risk that government agencies should be concerned about and get them out of the food supply."

Obesity caused by excessive amounts of sugar in soda is still a greater health threat, but the chemical reaction caused by ammonia and sugar "may be causing thousands of cancers in the U.S. population," the CSPI said in a statement, citing government research on animals.

Jacobson said California is considering regulation that would force some soft drinks to carry a cancer warning on their labels.

The American Beverage Industry quickly refuted the CSPI's claims, saying in a statement that 4-MI, which it identified as 4-MEI, "is not a threat to human health."

The statement went on: "There is no evidence that 4-MEI causes cancer in humans. No health regulatory agency around the globe, including the Food and Drug Administration, has said that 4-MEI is a human carcinogen. This petition is nothing more than another attempt to scare consumers by an advocacy group long-dedicated to attacking the food and beverage industry."

Adding to the confusion for consumers, the ABA pointed to a report by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, which conducted the studies cited by the CSPI, which does not identify 4-MEI as a carcinogen.

Jacobson said "shreds of evidence" that the substances may contribute to cancer date back to 1985, but acknowledged that major studies only began in the last few years.

But still, he said consumers should limit the amount of soda they consume for a variety of health reasons.

"The colas have the sugar that causes tooth decay, promotes obesity, phosphoric acid that erodes tooth enamel, caffeine that may keep people awake or make them jittery, and now these contaminants that pose a cancer risk," he said.