Apr. 25, 2023
Nobody should “treat” themselves to cancer
A bill has been introduced that would ban certain additives found in foods commonly consumed by children. Although California would be the first state to ban the use of these chemicals in processed foods, it probably will not be the last.
The timing could not have been more perfect: As millions of Americans prepared to enjoy their Easter-themed Peeps, the media cheerfully reported that they would likely be ingesting carcinogens. The reaction was as if the entire public had been hit with a soft-boiled Easter egg.
Red Dye No. 3, the culprit of the news stories, has been around for a long time. It has been prominently listed in the ingredients for Peeps, Hot Tamales, and dozens of other popular treats. And it has been known to have carcinogenic properties for almost as long as it has been in use.
It is not alone, however. Red Dye No. 3 may just be the best-known - or the easiest to pronounce - of a long list of dangerous chemicals that have been lurking in our food supply, as well as other consumer goods, for a very long time. Such chemicals show up in everything from fruit cups to sunscreen, but few consumers know about this or understand the implications.
Now California is taking both notice and action. A bill introduced Feb. 2 by Assembly members Jesse Gabriel and Buffy Wicks would ban certain additives found in foods commonly consumed by children. AB 418, if it takes effect, would not outlaw Peeps, Skittles or fruit cups; it would simply require that their recipes be changed to eliminate these harmful ingredients. In the grand scheme of things, a recipe change to remove Red Dye No. 3 should be relatively easy for the affected companies - Red No. 40 is approved in the EU, beet juice is natural and readily available - and it would be far safer for consumers. The legislation as written would thus ban the manufacture, sale or distribution of processed foods and candies containing the chemicals starting in January 2025.
Knowing which ingredients to avoid isn't always easy for consumers. They might have heard about unhealthy ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, but unless they are given clear warnings how would they ever know about chemicals in the foods they consume that are toxic? According to scientific studies cited by Assemblyman Gabriel, daily consumption of five chemicals, mostly found in candies, can put both children and adults at higher risk for cancer, behavioral issues, weak reproductive systems and damaged immune systems.
AB 418, which passed out of committee with bipartisan support, would make it unlawful for manufacturers to include the following chemicals in any food or drink products:
Red Dye No. 3 (Erythrosine or E127) is an artificial coloring found in Brach's candy corn, Peeps, Baby Bottle Pops and Hot Tamales. It is also found in some medications, despite the FDA's 1999 ban of the chemical for use in cosmetics and applied drugs due to links between the chemical and thyroid cancer. The coloring has continued to be used in food, ingestible drugs and dietary supplements despite studies that found that artificial coloring causes increased hyperactivity and behavioral issues in children.
Titanium Dioxide (E171) is an artificial coloring found in Skittles, Jell-O, Sour Patch Kids and sunscreen. Used to enhance food and over-the-counter products' white color or opacity, titanium dioxide was banned in the EU last year after an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority linked the chemical to genotoxicity (the ability to damage DNA).
Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO) is a food additive found in some Keurig Dr Pepper products like Sun Drop soda, as well as store-brand sodas such as Walmart's Great Value Fruit Punch Soda. BVO is used to prevent citrus flavoring in drinks from separating and floating to the top. Studies have found that bromine can irritate the skin and mucous membranes, and long-term exposure can eventually result in memory loss, headaches or impaired coordination or balance.
Potassium Bromate is a food additive, known as a "flour improver." It is found in 180 baked goods, including Hanover's soft pretzels, Stouffer's chicken pot pie bites and Sam's Choice cheese franks in a blanket. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists potassium bromate as a potential human carcinogen. In California, products containing the chemical must have a cancer warning under Proposition 65, but the FDA says potassium bromate can be used safely under certain conditions.
Propylparaben is another additive used in baked goods such as Sara Lee cinnamon rolls, La Banderita corn tortillas and Betty Crocker icing. The chemical is also used in cosmetics and skin care products to extend shelf life. Labeled by the FDA as "generally recognized as safe," propylparabens were linked to decreased fertility in a 2013 study done by the Harvard School of Public Health.
Although California would be the first state to ban the use of these chemicals in processed foods, it probably will not be the last. The New York legislature is considering similar legislation, which was introduced in April. Senate Bill S6055A would "prohibit the use of the following substances as food additive or color additives in the state on or after January 1, 2025: brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propylparabens, red dye 3, or titanium dioxide."
Whether any other states follow suit may end up being moot. California and New York represent such large markets that companies will have no choice but to transition all of their products to the new recipes. As automakers learned years ago when California required clean-driving vehicles, it would be pound-foolish to maintain two separate production lines. What's good for California - and New York - will have to be good for the rest of the country.
The good news is that children in Kansas and Vermont will also be spared the red dye hazards when they dig into their Easter Peeps in 2025. But it's just a start. The Environmental Working Group's Food Scores database looks at more than 80,000 foods to identify which products contain toxic chemicals. Expect to see more action to protect consumers in the coming years.