California Bans Red Food Coloring and Other Artificial Additives

In October 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the California Food Safety Act (AB 418). The act, which comes into effect in 2027, makes California the first state to prohibit manufacturing, selling, or distributing foodstuffs containing Red Dye No. 3, propylparaben, brominated vegetable oil, and potassium bromate. Sounds good. However, what are these dyes and chemicals, and why does their exclusion from food and beverages matter?
What Are Red Dye No.3 and the Three Other Banned Substances?
Red Dye No. 3 has been used for decades (since 1907) as a food and medicine colorant. The European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and China have already outlawed the coloring based on its potential for harm, including childhood hyperactivity and behavioral problems. As a result, it has recently come under scrutiny in the US.
The dye – erythrosine – is a synthetic compound derived from petroleum. The additive is found in over 3,200 red or pink-colored products. These offerings are as diverse as Peeps, Dubble Bubble gum, Betty Crocker loaded casserole potatoes, Morningstar Farms’ vegetarian bacon, the cherries in fruit cocktails, hamburger rolls, and orange sodas. The chemical remains in these foodstuffs, even after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned it on cosmetics and topically applied after linking it to cancer in laboratory animals.
The California law also proposes banning brominated vegetable oil (BVO). The additive prevents soda flavorings from separating, propylparaben, used to extend baked goods’ shelf life, and potassium bromate. The additive is mainly found in fast-rising flour.
Brominated vegetable oil’s safety has been questioned since a 1976 study linked BVO consumption in pigs to kidney, liver, testicle, and heart damage1. Additionally, research findings published in 2022 confirmed that BVO consumption in rats impacted the thyroid beyond accumulating in the vital organs, stimulating hormone release and cell overgrowth2.
Propyl paraben has been linked to hormone and reproductive system disruption and is especially harmful to children. In turn, potassium bromate is considered a potential human carcinogen.
What Is the FDA’s Stance on the Ruling?
While the passing of California’s banning law is widely welcomed after years of persistent campaigning by various organizations, not everyone is happy. For example, the National Confectioners Association (NCA) claims that the law may create confusion and undermine consumer confidence.
According to the NCA, “This law replaces a uniform national food safety system with a patchwork of inconsistent state requirements created by legislative fiat that will increase food costs. This is a slippery slope that the FDA could prevent by engaging on this important topic. We should be relying on the scientific rigor of the FDA in evaluating the safety of food ingredients and additives3.” The Association wants the FDA “to lean into the discussion and, have a solid review, [and] evaluate all the available science4.”
The FDA reviewed and approved the substances at permitted levels, but its ruling may be undermined. In response, they have reiterated that each of the additives has undergone stringent safety evaluation in compliance with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act.
Moreover, the act has significant consequences for processed foods and candies, requiring reformulation, supply chain adjustments, and brand PR management, with cost and time implications.
Implications for Food and Beverage Companies
Food and beverage manufacturers are concerned that the ban will introduce many extra state requirements, increasing producer and consumer costs. At the same time, the change in regulation may represent a chance to reconnect with consumers, introducing a much-desired change to more natural, plant-based ingredients and cleaner labels.
Depending on your flavor profile, non-toxic red coloring options include tomato, beet, pomegranate juice, paprika, or hibiscus powder.
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