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5 Dangerous Ingredients That Are in Our Food But Shouldn't Be

Oct 15, 2023Oct 15, 2023

California is considering banning Red Dye No. 3 and other common additives, which could affect hundreds of foods, even in other states

Update: The California Assembly's Committee on Health on April 11, 2023 approved a bill to ban five chemicals from candy, cereals, and other processed food. The bill is expected to move to the full Assembly for a vote in the coming weeks. If the bill is enacted, California would be the first state to impose such a prohibition.

Original article: A bill co-sponsored by Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and now being debated in the California State Assembly would, if passed, ban five chemicals from being used as additives in food and drinks sold in the state. And it could have far-reaching effects for consumers throughout the country.

The substances—brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propyl paraben, Red Dye No. 3, and titanium dioxide—have each been linked to serious health problems, including higher risk of cancer, nervous system damage, hyperactivity, and other behavioral problems. All have been banned by regulators for use in food in Europe.

Yet all are currently used as ingredients in numerous foods, including baked goods, beverages, and candies, such as popular Easter Peeps.

A group of 10 food and beverage manufacturer, distributor, and retailer trade organizations—including the American Chemistry Council, the International Association of Color Manufacturers, and the American Bakers Association—object to the bill, arguing that these chemicals have already been reviewed by federal and state regulatory systems and that further evaluation processes are ongoing and should be allowed to continue.

But Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at CR, says more needs to be done now. "Despite the well-documented risks these five food chemicals pose to our health, the FDA has failed to take action to protect the public," he says. "By banning these dangerous chemicals from food, California can protect public health in the state and encourage manufacturers to make their products safer for the rest of the country."

Here's what you need to know about the proposed law.

Food safety advocates have concerns about a broad range of food additives, hundreds of which have entered the food system in the past two decades without a rigorous safety review by the Food and Drug Administration.

But these five meet several criteria that make them stand out, says Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the EWG. Each can be found in scores (and in some cases hundreds) of products currently on supermarket shelves, each has been clearly linked to health harms, and each has been banned for use in food by regulators in Europe who weighed the latest scientific evidence.

In addition, Benesh says, these five substances are emblematic of a broader problem. "The FDA is fundamentally broken when it comes to reviewing the chemicals in the foods we eat every day," she says. "And these are particularly good examples of the agency's failure to take action."

Brominated vegetable oil is used in sports drinks and sodas as an emulsifier—a substance that helps blend liquids that don't otherwise blend easily, such as oil and water. (According to the FDA, it keeps citrus flavorings from separating and floating to the top of the beverage.) According to a database hosted by the EWG, it's used in about 70 sodas and beverages, most of them vibrantly colored and citrus-flavored.

Potassium bromate is a flour "improver," added to strengthen dough, make baked goods rise higher in the oven, and enhance their texture. The EWG counts some 180 products containing potassium bromate, including many packaged breads, dumplings, and frozen foods.

Propyl paraben is used as a preservative, extending the shelf life of packaged foods by preventing growth of mold and bacteria. It can be found in more than 50 products in U.S. grocery stores, including many packaged corn tortillas, baked desserts, and cake icing, according to the EWG.

Red Dye No. 3, also known as FD&C Red No. 3, red dye 3, and erythosine, is a food coloring used to give a bright, cherry-red color to thousands of food products now on shelves, including candies, baked goods, snacks, cereals, and sodas.

Titanium dioxide is also used as a food coloring, in this case to make coffee creamers, baking decorations, and sauces appear whiter than they otherwise would, and in some candy and other products as a kind of "paint primer" to make other colors, added later, appear more vivid.

Tell the FDA to ban the cancer-causing dye from food, medicine, and supplements, as it has for cosmetics.

Peer-reviewed studies conducted on rodents have linked brominated vegetable oil (BVO) to neurological problems; thyroid, heart and liver problems; and behavioral, developmental and reproductive issues.

Potassium bromate has been linked to cancer.

Propyl paraben has been shown to cause endocrine disruption and reproductive issues in lab animal testing.

Red Dye No. 3 has been found to cause cancer and thyroid tumors in lab animals and has been linked to hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral effects in children. Health effects like these led the FDA to ban its use in cosmetics more than 30 years ago.

Titanium dioxide has been linked to digestive tract problems, and it was banned in Europe because scientists there could not rule out genotoxicity, the ability of the substance to damage genetic information in the body's cells

Yes. In fact, says California assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, who introduced AB-418 in the state legislature, "there's a readily available substitute for each of these ingredients."

For example, sorbic acid is often used instead of propyl paraben, ester gum instead of brominated vegetable oil, and calcium carbonate instead of titanium dioxide.

And in many cases the alternatives are less expensive, says Scott Faber, senior vice president of governmental affairs at the EWG. So why are they still used? Partly just inertia: "It is inconvenient for food companies to change their formulas," he says.

The short answer is that it's technically legal to use them in food, and nobody with authority—notably, the FDA—is saying otherwise. These additives have been used in food in the U.S. for decades and, as the National Confectioners Association says in its letter opposing AB-418, most have been evaluated and approved for that use by the FDA. (Propyl paraben is an exception; see below.)

The problem, health and safety advocates say, is that those FDA approvals are now decades old. Bromated vegetable oil was last meaningfully reviewed by the FDA for safety in 1977; potassium bromate in 1973; propyl paraben in 1977; Red Dye No. 3 in 1982; and titanium dioxide in 1966.

Since then, there has been a sea change in the scientific understanding of these additives, their health effects, and, more broadly, the ways that chemicals can negatively affect human health in both the short and long term. The technologies and methods used to analyze health risks have also changed dramatically in recent decades.

"The FDA is simply ignoring new science," says CR senior scientist Michael Hansen, PhD, noting that literally hundreds of peer-reviewed studies linking these additives to health risks have been published in recent decades, none of which were considered in the FDA's previous reviews. The agency's European counterpart, meanwhile, banned these five chemicals, among others, after conducting a comprehensive re-evaluation of the safety of all food additives, which it launched in 2008.

Propyl paraben highlights another reason that certain dangerous chemicals end up in our food: the GRAS loophole.

Short for "generally recognized as safe," the GRAS designation was created in 1958 so that manufacturers could use common ingredients like vinegar and baking soda without going through the standard process of submitting a formal food additive petition, which would trigger a rigorous premarket safety review.

The 1958 law did not specify who would determine whether a substance is GRAS, so companies were allowed to do it themselves. The FDA maintained a list of GRAS substances, however, and for decades companies would petition the agency to confirm the GRAS status of their chemicals. That's how propyl paraben was added to the list in 1972.

In 1997, however, overwhelmed by a backlog of GRAS petitions, the FDA replaced the process with a less formal and voluntary "notification" system. As a result, companies no longer have to tell the FDA (or anyone else) that they have declared their new chemical GRAS before putting it into our food.

With that shift, a category created to be a narrow exception became the rule: Of all new chemicals added to the U.S. food supply since 2000, 98.7 percent—756 out of 766—came in through a GRAS designation, according to a recent study by the EWG. During the same time, food and chemical companies have formally petitioned the FDA to approve a new additive only 10 times.

Part of the reason is that the FDA doesn't get adequate funding from Congress for food chemical reviews, says CR's Ronholm. But the agency has also failed to prioritize food chemical issues, he adds.

Indeed, a recent independent panel evaluation of the FDA's Human Food Program, commissioned by the agency in the wake of last year's baby formula crisis, acknowledged the budget issue but also described a program lacking leadership and strategic vision and plagued by structural problems, a "culture of indecisiveness and inaction," and an atmosphere of "constant turmoil" and "aversion to risk."

In response, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf pledged to begin putting the panel's recommendations in place and said the effort would be a "top priority for the agency," and later announced plans to hire a new deputy commissioner to lead, among other things, "programs aimed at preventing and responding to chemical, microbial, and other hazards."

Short answer: Read the ingredients list. If they’re in the food, they have to be listed.

You can also look up the ingredients of thousands of food products, and search them by brand or category, using the EWG's Food Scores database.

Reading ingredients lists can be exhausting, of course, and isn't always possible, so it's worth keeping in mind the food categories in which these additives are most often used: Candy, sodas, sports drinks, packaged breads, tortillas, cookies and other baked treats, and shredded cheese, and especially in generic store brands. In general, the more heavily processed the product, and the more unfamiliar-sounding ingredients are listed, the more likely these additives are to be lurking.

In addition, keep in mind that numerous large food manufacturers and retailers have pledged not to use some or all of these additives or sell products that contain some or all of them. Whole Foods and Kroger appear to be the only grocery chains that have promised to rid their shelves of these ingredients altogether, but Aldi, Food Lion, Giant, Publix, ShopRite, and SuperValu say they have removed them from certain store brands. In addition, the Coca-Cola Company, Dunkin Donuts, Panera, Papa Johns, and PepsiCo have each pledged not to use or sell products with some of these additives.

"It's possible for these companies to make a healthy profit without poisoning kids," Gabriel, the California lawmaker, said at a March press event on the bill. "In many cases they now have increased confidence from consumers who want to buy foods that are healthy."

Scott Medintz

Scott Medintz is a writer and editor at Consumer Reports, focusing on the organization's public policy work on behalf of consumers. Before coming to CR in 2017, he was an editor at Time and Money magazines.

Update Original article: Brominated vegetable oil Potassium bromate Propyl paraben Red Dye No. 3 Titanium dioxide Tell the FDA to ban the cancer-causing dye from food, medicine, and supplements, as it has for cosmetics.