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California could soon ban 4 food additives in common sweets. What to know

This story appeared on Calmatters

Peeps Marshmallow Chicks on display at a store in Albuquerque, New Mexico on April 5, 2023. Photo by Sam Wasson, Sipa USA via Reuters

In summary

The European Union has banned certain additives that are used in American candies and baked goods. California is on the cusp of prohibiting their sale by 2027.

It’s no longer the “Skittles ban,” but legislation on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk still could force food manufacturers to change their recipes for a variety of sweets and baked goods. 

The California Food Safety Act would prohibit the sale of food products containing several additives that are outlawed in the European Union and are thought to be harmful to the health of people who eat them. 

The bill made headlines as “the Skittles ban” earlier this year because the original version of it would have prohibited a chemical used to add color to the popular candy. Lawmakers last month amended the bill to allow the sale of products with that chemical, although it still would ban chemicals that are commonly used in other sweets. 

If Newsom signs the bill, manufacturers would have until Jan. 1, 2027 to reformulate their products and comply with California law. That could lead the companies to remove the additives from their products nationwide because of the size of California’s market. 

Consumer Reports is a cosponsor of the bill. Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at the nonprofit, said California’s ban could be important for the rest of the country. 

“This groundbreaking bill passed with strong bipartisan support and bans four food chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems, including a higher risk of cancer, nervous system damage, hyperactivity and other neurological conditions. The FDA has been slow to address these dangers, so it is critical for states like California to protect consumers from these toxic food chemicals,” he said.

Opponents of the bill believe it would disrupt operations for manufacturers and retailers. They also argue it would harm consumers because they wouldn’t be able to purchase these products.

The bill is the latest among several recent California laws that attempt to influence national consumer markets. Most notably, voters approved a 2018 initiative that compels ranchers to provide more space to livestock, such as egg-laying hens and pigs, if they want to sell their products in California. The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the law against a challenge from the National Pork Producers Association

The organizations that opposed the current bill to ban the sale of food with certain chemicals have not said whether they plan to sue if Newsom signs it into law. 

What does this bill ban?

The bill will ban red dye 3, propylparaben, brominated vegetable oil and potassium bromate from all foods meant for human consumption. 

Red dye 3 is a common color additive found in candies and other food products. It was banned from cosmetic use more than 30 years ago by the Food and Drug Administration due to concerns about it being a carcinogen. It is still used in popular candies like Peeps, as well as other foods such as cookies and colored drinks, according to the nonprofit organization Environmental Working Group.

Just Born Quality Confections, which makes Peeps, earlier this year told CNN the additive is “an approved colorant for use in candy by the (Food and Drug Administration). We manufacture all our candies in compliance with FDA regulations, sourcing our ingredients and packaging exclusively from reputable suppliers who adhere to high quality and safety standards.”

Propylparaben is a preservative used in baked goods like muffins and cakes, as well as in popular trail mixes.

Brominated vegetable oil is added to popular citrus drinks to prevent the flavoring oils from floating on top. While many beverage companies stopped using it a while ago, brands like Sun Drop continue to use it in their citrus sodas, according to its parent beverage company Keurig Dr Pepper.

Potassium bromate is a substance used to strengthen dough and can be found in all kinds of breads, cookies and tortillas. It has been banned in the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada and Brazil.

Why ban these particular chemicals?

In scientific studies on rats, the chemicals have been found to either be carcinogenic or neurotoxic or cause endocrine or reproductive damage.

They have already been banned from foods in the European Union, except red dye 3, which is allowed only in candied cherries. Many brands in recent years have switched away from several of these chemicals in order to protect their consumers. PepsiCo previously used brominated vegetable oil in several of its beverages, such as Mountain Dew and certain flavors of Gatorade, but has since changed those formulations after their use of brominated vegetable oil became controversial.

Advocates for a ban on the chemicals in California said manufacturers should be able to reformulate their products to comply with the bill.

“There’s no reason that the foods that you can find on the supermarket shelves in Europe should be safer than the ones that we find here in California,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group, which is a cosponsor of the bill. 

What happened to Skittles? 

Skittles contain titanium dioxide, which is used to add whiteness to foods like candies and dairy products. The bill in its original text would have banned titanium dioxide. It was removed by an amendment. 

The Food and Drug Administration has said that titanium dioxide is generally safe to consume in small quantities.

Manufacturers stressed that point in lobbying to exempt titanium dioxide from the bill. 

“Our belief is that the science and the international regulatory reviews of titanium dioxide support its continued safe use in these applications and didn’t warrant being included in the bill,” said Tim Shestek, senior director of state affairs at the American Chemistry Council.

Given concerns about the chemical after it was banned in the European Union, the Food and Drug Administration put it under review based on a petition several environmental and consumer groups filed in April. 

Are these chemicals actually dangerous?

Red dye 3 has been shown to cause cancers in rats but only at very high doses; there have been no proven cancers due to human consumption. Similarly, the other chemicals have been tested in rats and other mammals, but no cancers or other health issues in humans have been directly associated with them.

James Coughlin, a food expert at UC Davis, said this move by California to ban these four chemicals from food is “unnecessary and unscientific.”

According to Coughlin, who has researched toxins in food for over 40 years, all of these chemicals are safe for human consumption in legally permissible quantities. 

Who opposes this bill and why?

This bill is strongly opposed by various food and beverage associations across the country, as well as the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. 

Christopher Gindlesperger, a senior vice president at the National Confectioners Association, said, “We should rely on the scientific rigor of the FDA in terms of evaluating the safety of food ingredients and additives. Banning food and color additives which FDA has approved undermines consumer confidence and disrupts the protection of public health. It replaces a uniform national food safety system with a patchwork of inconsistent state requirements that increase food costs.”

Retail associations said California should have waited for the Food and Drug Administration to evaluate these chemicals and set a national standard for them. Rachel Michelin, CEO of the California Retailers Association, said these state laws will “put a burden on California consumers, who will end up paying more for their products or will not have access to them.”

The agency is currently working on a rule to remove authorizations for the use of brominated vegetable oil in food. It is also reviewing red dye 3

Benesh, of the Environmental Working Group, said the opposition from manufacturers is just “inertia on their part.”

“Companies have been manufacturing these foods without these additives for a long time.

They’re selling them in Europe to comply with the European market. It shows that it is possible and affordable to reformulate,” she said.

Supported by the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF), which works to ensure that people have access to the care they need, when they need it, at a price they can afford. Visit www.chcf.org to learn more.

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