California and New York want to ban five dangerous food additives to protect people’s health

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published May 2, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • California or New York could be the first US state to ban five dangerous additives from food products.

  • The proposed ban isn’t new and comes years after a European ban.

  • Still, experts say the ban could significantly reduce dietary health risks for state residents. 

California and New York senators have proposed bills to ban the use of five common food additives—moves that could eliminate several candies and processed food items from grocery store shelves and potentially some[] health risks for consumers.[]

The bans include food additives Red Dye No. 3, titanium dioxide, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil, and propylparaben. These have been linked to various health risks, such as cancer, harm to the immune system, and harm to the reproductive system.

“The five chemicals identified in this bill are some of the worst of the worst,” says Lillian Zhou, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Stabile Law Fellow. “They all pose public health harms, including increased risk of cancer, harm to the reproductive system and harm to the immune system.”

They’ve also been banned by the European Union, starting with a panel discussion to ban four (Red Dye No. 3, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil, and propylparaben) in 2008.[] Titanium dioxide was most recently banned by the EU, effective since mid-2022. And some companies that sell products with additives in the US sell the same products without additives in the EU. Depending on how you look at it, this could raise the alarm or indicate an increased chance that these additives will be removed from products in the US, too.

“Companies that sell the same products to European and American markets have already made safer versions to comply with EU standards,” says Zhou.

What foods contain these additives?

Several foods contain the additives that California and New York are trying to ban. For example:

  • Red Dye No. 3 is a food coloring used in many artificially colored drinks and other foods.

  • Titanium dioxide is used as a white pigment. It can be found in a range of milks, coffee creamers, and sauces. 

  • Potassium bromate is an oxidizing agent found in baked doughs, such as bread.

  • Brominated vegetable oil is an additive used in sodas and other beverages.

  • Propylparaben has been found in many processed foods, including specific branded items like Sara Lee cinnamon rolls, Weight Watchers cakes, and La Banderita Corn Tortillas, according to research by the EWG.

As demonstrated above, these chemicals are abundant in colored and processed foods, posing more acute risks to young children who are attracted to vibrant snacks.

“Because of the foods these chemicals are commonly found in, children are likely being exposed at higher rates than adults,” Zhou says.

Various factors, including children’s still-developing organs and detoxifying systems, as well as their lower weights, make them especially vulnerable to chemical exposure, according to the EWG. Fetuses can also be vulnerable to exposure through the umbilical cord.[] 

Will other states follow these moves?

If California’s or New York’s bills  are approved, they could be implemented in 2025. Zhou suspects this change could prompt other states to follow suit, moving toward a healthier future.[]

“We do expect that if the ban is implemented in California that we would see a ripple effect across the country, bringing regulation in the United States up to the same standards as in the European Union,” says Zhou. 

Eating for the future

Regardless of California’s or New York’s dietary future, it is a good idea to be mindful of chemicals in our food. Reminding patients that what they eat impacts their health—not just their weight but also their exposure to harmful chemicals—can help them make mindful choices about their food intake.

“Food and food ingredients present an almost unimaginable number of opportunities for foodborne pathogens to be introduced into the marketplace and consumers’ homes,” says Dr. Vanessa R. Coffman, Director of the Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness, an organization that advocates for food safety. “Every ingredient, whether it is a primary ingredient, an additive, or found in trace amounts, should be safe for consumers. When that standard is not met, as many of our constituents know, the consequences can be life-altering.”

What this means for you

California and New York are proposing bills to ban five dangerous additives from food products. The move comes more than a decade after the European Union banned these additives, ahead of the rest of the United States. Environmental safety groups say the proposal could significantly improve Americans’ dietary health.

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