[REUTERS] --U.S. regulators said soft drinks from PepsiCo Inc and Coca-Cola Co posed no health risk, contrary to a U.S. watchdog group that reported several popular brands contain high levels of a chemical linked to cancer in animals.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said it found unsafe levels of a chemical used to make caramel color in cans of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc's Dr. Pepper, and Whole Foods' 365 Cola.

The group asked the Food and Drug Administration to ban caramel coloring agents that contain the chemical known as 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MI. This follows a similar plea last year.

Coke and Pepsi, with the acquiescence of the FDA, are needlessly exposing millions of Americans to a chemical that causes cancer, said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson. If companies can make brown food coloring that is carcinogen-free, the industry should use that.

The FDA said it is reviewing the group's petition, but that the drinks were still safe.

A consumer would have to consume well over a thousand cans of soda a day to reach the doses administered in the studies that have shown links to cancer in rodents, said Doug Karas, an FDA spokesman, in a statement.

The cans were all taken from stores in the Washington, D.C. area, and some had levels of 4-MI near 140 micrograms in each 12-ounce can, the watchdog group said. The state of California has a legal limit of 29 micrograms of 4-MI, it added.

However, the group said a bigger health risk came from high-fructose corn syrup, which is used to sweeten soda and can contribute to diabetes.

The FDA's limit for 4-MI in caramel coloring is 250 parts per million (ppm). That caramel would then be diluted when it is put in soda. The highest levels of 4-MI found by CSPI were about 0.4 ppm, according to Reuters calculations.

This is nothing more than CSPI scare tactics, the American Beverage Association said in a statement. In fact, findings of regulatory agencies worldwide ... consider caramel coloring safe for use in foods and beverages.