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How California's Recent Ban of 4 'Toxic' Food Chemicals Will Affect You

Food brands will soon have to remove these harmful additives from their products—and the consequences are far-reaching.
FACT CHECKED BY Justine Goodman

Those sneaky additives and dyes that are found in so many popular foods can be quite scary, but good news came out of California earlier this month regarding new safeguards against these potentially harmful chemicals. On October 7, 2023, Gov. Gavin Newsome signed the California Food Safety Act, which will officially ban the use of Red Dye No. 3, brominated vegetable oil, propylparaben, and potassium bromate—four additives found in a variety of processed foods like candy corn, Peeps, packaged muffins and baked goods, fruit sodas like Crush and Sun Drop, and even some WeightWatcher products.

Although the new law won't go into effect until January 1, 2027, it represents a milestone in food safety, and it will likely impact Americans regardless of whether they live in California. Any product containing these ingredients will either need to be reformulated or pulled from shelves in California by that date; any failure to comply will result in hefty fines against the manufacturer, distributor, and even the retailer of said products. It seems reasonable to assume that most manufacturers will opt to change the current recipes to be compliant with the new law rather than producing different versions of the same foods across states. So whether you live in California or Kalamazoo, you should be paying attention.

We spoke to Susan Little, Environmental Working Group (EWG) senior advocate for California government affairs, who tells us, "The four food chemicals covered by the California Food Safety Act have been linked to a number of serious health concerns. They were banned by the European Union after it launched a full review of the safety of all food additives in 2008." California has now become the first U.S. state to implement similar bans, and the hope is that more states will soon follow. In fact, similar legislation is already under review in New York, too.

The EWG further stated in their Oct. 7th announcement that, "These chemicals are linked to serious health problems, such as hyperactivity, nervous system damage, and an increased risk of cancer." Read on for the details on what these additives really are, why the ban matters, and what it all means for you. 

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The four banned additives and their possible health risks

Candy corn

As noted, these additives were already banned in Europe, but they are still used in a multitude of U.S. food products today:

  • Red Dye No.3: In 1990, the FDA banned Red Dye No.3 from being used in things like cosmetics, but stopped short of requiring food companies to stop using it—even though studies have found links between this chemical and possible neurological disorders in children and even cancer in rodents. Meanwhile, the E.U. banned Red Dye No.3 (except for use in cocktail cherries) back in 1994. As its name suggests, Red Dye No. 3 lends color to a variety of popular store-bought foods and beverages, including Brach's Candy Corn, various jelly bean candies (including Jelly Belly products), Peeps, and some Betty Crocker items.
  • Brominated Vegetable Oil: You may find Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO) in certain sodas, but various animal studies over the past 40 years have found some scary potential side effects associated with this additive, such as issues related to the thyroid and neurological functioning. BVO is likewise banned in Europe. BVO was common in soft drinks, but many soda companies have stopped including it in their formulas over the last few years. However, you'll still find BVO in some citrus-flavored sodas like Crush Pineapple or Sun Drop.
  • Propylparaben: Propylparaben is another additive banned in Europe that has been permitted to be used in U.S. products. The EWG recognizes it as a "higher concern" due to possible links to reproductive toxicity. Many companies like Sara Lee, Archer Farms, and even WeightWatchers still use propylparaben in certain packaged baked goods.
  • Potassium Bromate: Potassium Bromate is a common additive found in many packaged pastries and baked goods, but a potential link to cancer was found as early as 1999. As you may have guessed, this chemical is also banned in Europe, as well as Canada and Brazil. Brands like Gomez, Hy Vee, and Balducci still use potassium bromate in many of their bread products.

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What does this mean for the consumer?

packaged muffins to cause inflammation

We now know the potential protection that can come from such a bill, but what exactly does it mean for the consumer?

According to Little, "The passage of this bill represents a huge step toward protecting children and families in California from dangerous and toxic chemicals in food." She says "The ingredients banned are often found in food marketed to children, so the ban will remove these ingredients from children's food, especially by 2027."

When asked why the law won't go into effect until 2027, Little explains, "The purpose of the bill is for companies to make minor modifications to their recipes to remove these toxic chemicals from their products, so the bill does not go into effect until 2027 to give companies adequate time to modify."

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What comes next?

assorted candy

Now that the bill has been signed, what should consumers expect? For starters, Little believes that the legislation will have vast consequences beyond California.

"Given the size of California's economy, it is unlikely manufacturers will produce two versions of their product—one to be sold solely in California and one for the rest of the country," says Little. This means that major companies may make changes to all of their products, which would result in states outside of California being able to sell items without these chemicals. "As many as 12,000 products may be affected, based on EWG's Food Scores Database."

We will also most likely see other states begin to pass similar bans; as mentioned, New York is already on its way to banning these four additives, along with titanium dioxide.

While it's alarming that these ingredients have been lurking in our food for years, despite the evidence to suggest the U.S. should have followed Europe's lead long ago, the California bill is a promising step in the right direction. And, as Little points out, "Consumers consistently rank food chemical concerns ahead of other food safety issues," meaning this issue isn't going away anytime soon.

Samantha Boesch
Samantha was born and raised in Orlando, Florida and now works as a writer in Brooklyn, NY. Read more about Samantha
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