Last year, the California Food Safety Act was introduced, prohibiting the use of four key ingredients—Red Dye No. 3, brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, and propylparaben in food in the state. Studies on both animals and humans have linked these additives to possible negative health impacts.

The bill, which was amended and approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom in early October, does not take effect until 2027. Any business who violates the law would face a first fine up to $5,000 and up to $10,000 for each subsequent violation.

While these and other ingredients have been restricted (such as by being subject to warning label requirements) or outright banned in other countries, they’ve remained rampant in the American diet.

Some experts say that at this point, we should be more concerned about super processed foods in general rather than fixating on certain dyes and preservatives. Skyrocketing obesity rates is just one part of a vicious cycle of health effects connected to super processed foods.

“We’re sicker than we’ve ever been because our food is poisoning us,” says Jerold Mande, former deputy undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). He added that an overemphasis on individual additives ignores the more glaring and well-studied connection between cancer and obesity.

Whether used to improve flavor, texture, color, or longevity, additives have become essential to American favorites and are hard to say goodbye to. These ingredients, some of which are included in the California bill and some which are not, are banned in some other countries or require warnings but are still used widely in the U.S.

Snacks containing artificial food coloring

The saying goes we eat first with our eyes—so snacks are made to be as appealing as possible. Many popular American snacks get their vivid tones from a host of synthetic dyes.

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Since 1969, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of nine artificial colorants in food products, including Red No. 3 and 40 and Yellow No. 5 and 6. Recently included as part of the California bill, Red 3 shows up in some popular sweets and drinks, while Red 40 and yellow dyes give color to certain candies, as well as snacks.

Abroad, in certain countries you may not find these ingredients on labels. With some exceptions, Red 3 is banned as a food additive in Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union.

While some countries in the E.U. have decided to limit the use of certain artificial colors, the European Parliament has yet to impose transnational regulations on banning Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Red 40. However, the E.U. does require foods containing those additives to include a warning that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Some recent studies have more directly tied synthetic food dyes to negative health outcomes, particularly in children. Consumption of artificial colorants can cause hyperactivity and neurobehavioral problems in some kids, according to a 2021 report from California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. In 1990, in response to research linking Red No. 3 to cancer in rats, the FDA banned the dye from cosmetics and topical drugs.

For the first time since Red 3 was banned from cosmetics and topical drugs in 1990, the FDA is reviewing a petition to end the use of the colorant in foods and ingested drugs. A final decision is forthcoming, according to FDA Press Officer Enrico Dinges, who added that the carcinogenic effects of Red 3 have been “clearly demonstrated to be specific to rats” and not relevant to humans.

Some experts disagree, however. Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the health nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), called the evidence tying artificial colorants to negative health impacts “compelling,” adding that any amount of risk is too high.

Treats containing titanium dioxide

Artificial dyes aren’t the only additive used to make food more visually enticing. Because of its light-scattering properties, titanium dioxide can be used not only to artificially brighten whites but also make muted tones more vibrant.

Titanium dioxide, an ingredient initially included in the California bill but was later taken out prior to approval by California Governor Gavin Newsome. According to EWG’s website, currently thousands of food products for sale in the U.S. contain titanium dioxide.

Titanium dioxide has been banned as a food additive in the E.U. since August 2022. The decision was based on a 2021 safety assessment from the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA). The ingredient’s controversy stems from whether nanoparticle-sized titanium dioxide can permeate cells and damage our DNA (genotoxicity).

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Though EFSA didn’t find direct evidence of genotoxicity from exposure to titanium dioxide, the possibility could “not be ruled out,” says Edward Bray, EFSA media and communications officer. He adds that experts concluded that titanium dioxide “can no longer be considered as safe when used as a food additive.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) recently issued a joint statement which did not find enough evidence showing negative health impacts from titanium dioxide on consumers. “This is an example that the current system in place is working and underscores the argument that there is no need for individual states to take action,” says Sarah Gallo, vice president of product policy at the Consumer Brands Association (CBA), an industry trade group opposing the California bill.

Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have declined to regulate titanium dioxide, citing insufficient evidence of toxicity in humans. In a 2022 safety review, the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) concluded that “there is currently no evidence to suggest dietary exposure to food-grade titanium dioxide is a concern for human health,” according to an agency representative.

The FDA is currently reviewing a petition to ban titanium dioxide, which had been unchallenged since it was declared safe in 1973. In March, a coalition of five public health advocacy organizations, including the EWG, called on the FDA to rescind its approval of titanium dioxide.

Packaged baked goods containing potassium bromate

It’s not just brightly colored snacks where additives come into our diet. Potassium bromate, an additive banned by the California bill signed into law, is a slow-acting oxidizer that has long been used in flour to strengthen and increase the rising potential of dough.

First used as a bread dough conditioner in 1916, Dinges says, potassium bromate is still used in certain packaged baked goods, such as in some hamburger buns and dinner rolls.

Certain studies have shown that regular consumption of potassium bromate can have toxic consequences in both rodents and people. In 1991, potassium bromate was listed as a potential carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65, which requires a warning label on any products containing more than certain levels of the additive.

In the U.S., potassium bromate usage has declined significantly since 1991, when the FDA asked companies to voluntarily pull it from their recipes. However, because the flour additive is considered “prior sanctioned” (meaning, substances approved for specific uses in foods prior to September 6, 1958), it’s not regulated by the FDA as a food additive, Dinges says . Facing two pending citizen petitions, the FDA is currently “gathering data on industry practices and use to help determine whether action on potassium bromate is warranted,” he adds .

Dinges says that, when used properly, “potassium bromate converts to harmless potassium bromide in the finished food product,” a claim corroborated by Rasma Zvaners, vice president of government relations for the American Bakers Association (ABA). The FDA and ABA worked together to “ensure that bromate residues are well below level of concern for public health, ” Dinges says. According to the EPA, potassium bromide “poses a low toxicity hazard. Its oral toxicity is well known and is very low.”

“Even though potassium bromate at the amounts used in baking may subsequently prove to be of little or no concern, the baking industry still needs to take the necessary steps to reduce any possible bromate residues in finished products to safe levels,” according to Zvaners. “ABA has worked with the FDA to…improve baking technology and testing so that the ingredient is used in a way that minimizes residual bromate levels to ensure safety.”

Abroad, the compound is categorized as a group 2B carcinogen, or “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the European Chemicals Agency classified potassium bromate as a group 1B carcinogen, meaning it is “presumed to have carcinogenic potential for humans.” Since the 1990s, certain countries around the world have banned potassium bromate as a food additive, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, and the E.U.

Faber says potassium bromate is “a perfect example of a chemical that companies will continue to use until the regulator tells them that they cannot.” But given the existence of dough strengthening alternatives like ascorbic acid and azodicarbonamide, Faber called the debate around the safety of potassium bromate “silly.”

Living with current regulations

George Gray, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, posits the results of years of research hardly show these ingredients to pose significant health risks, especially at the low levels permitted by the FDA.

Many players within the food industry believe the FDA’s current regulations are sufficient. In a 2023 statement opposing California’s recently passed legislation, the American Chemistry Council’s Titanium Dioxide Stewardship Council described the bill as “as an overly broad and unnecessary burden on consumers, manufacturers, and regulators.” The CBA also sees it as government outreach. Gallo says the law “preempts ongoing federal reviews of additives” and “sets a dangerous precedent for circumventing our country’s science and risk-based reviews that prioritize consumer health and safety.”

As government agencies and the food industry butt heads over regulation, much of the onus around healthy eating continues to fall on the consumer. Thomas Galligan, principal scientist for food additives and supplements at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), advises consumers to consult ranked lists like CSPI’s Chemical Cuisine Ratings and EWG’s Dirty Dozen. And check your labels: the ingredients mentioned in this article are required to be listed.

Ultimately, “choosing a healthy diet that’s rich in nutritious foods, nutrient dense foods, as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans should be everyone’s first priority,” he says. “Mitigating or reducing your exposure to harmful additives is an important consideration after that fact.”

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