California bans four common food additives: What does it mean for consumers?

URI nutrition expert weighs in on what consumers should know

KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 1, 2023 – California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill banning the use of four common food additives linked to health problems. The new law makes California the first state in the nation to outlaw chemicals that are allowed by the Food and Drug Administration.

The California Food Safety Act goes into effect Jan. 1, 2027, after which, any person or entity that manufactures, sells, or distributes food products containing the additives in question—Red Dye No. 3, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil and propylparaben—will be fined. 

Some food policy experts believe the California law sets a dangerous precedent of bypassing federal processes and potentially setting up a confusing patchwork of state requirements that will increase costs while undermining consumer confidence in food safety. Others say the new law is likely to make Americans safer and point to the fact these ingredients have already been made illegal in the European Union and other parts of the world.

URI Nutrition Professor Kathleen Melanson

University of Rhode Island Professor of Nutrition Kathleen Melanson says that while it is best not to consume food containing these additives on a regular basis, an occasional treat should not pose a risk. Melanson is the graduate program director in the URI College of Health Sciences’ Department of Nutrition. Her research focuses on healthy body weight management, chronic disease risk reduction, energy and macronutrient balances, and dietary quality.

Below, Melanson lends her expertise to help explain what these ingredients are, what consumers should be aware of, as well as some simple tips to help avoid them.

What are these additives and what are they used for?

The additives that California has banned, and/or that are already banned in the European Union and some other countries include:

  • Red dye no. 3 (erythrosine), an artificial food coloring used in some pink and red confections, baked goods, candies, frostings, icings, cereals, and beverages;
  • Bromated vegetable oil (BVO), which is used in some citrus-flavored beverages (sodas, sports drinks) to keep the flavoring from floating to the top;
  • Potassium bromate, which is used in some refined flours to make them rise better and impart a lighter, fluffy texture; 
  • Propyl paraben, which is used in some baked goods as a preservative to reduce microbial growth and enhance shelf life.

Titanium dioxide, which is used as a whitener in some creamy salad dressings and soups, candies, dessert toppings/decorations, candies, and coffee creamers, was not banned under the California Food Safety Act, but is in a similar bill in the New York state legislature. It remains banned in the European Union.

What types of health problems are these ingredients linked to?

In animal model research, these additives have been linked to various conditions related to disruption of hormonal function (endocrine disruptors), including thyroid and reproductive hormones. Rodent studies have also linked some of these additives to various forms of cancers and genotoxicity. The possibility of behavioral disturbances has also been raised in human research, such as hyperactivity with red dye no. 3, and behavioral issues with BVO.

If these chemicals are so bad, why haven’t they been banned by the FDA?

Robust research requires a lot of time, money and expertise, and methodology is always advancing. It could be that a critical mass of reliable data relevant to FDA standards has not yet been accumulated. Data may have been assessed differently in the United States versus other countries.

While I cannot conclusively say why they have not been banned, there are many factors which are taken into consideration in these decisions—and different countries have different criteria. There are some additives which are not permitted in the United States that are permitted in Europe, and vice-versa. 

The FDA may have assessed the extant scientific literature and concluded it did not sufficiently demonstrate that the amounts typically consumed by humans would pose harm. For example, animal model studies sometimes use high doses that would not be reasonably consumed by humans. 

Regardless, now that these additives are being banned in other countries and in individual states—especially in a market as large as California, this will help to advance the large-scale removal of these additives from the marketplace and lead to the reformulation of products using safer alternatives.

As consumer awareness increases, it is also likely that consumers will reduce purchasing products that contain them, and demand foods made with safer alternatives. 

How much should the average consumer be concerned about their use?

It is important for consumers to be aware of these additives and their risks. Although some major food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurant chains have already started removing these additives nationally, consumers should read the ingredient lists of foods and beverages that may contain them. This information should be available online as well as on the packages themselves. 

Even in California, the full ban will not be in effect until 2027. In the meantime, consumers should take precautions to minimize consuming these additives. As mentioned previously, as consumers demand products without these additives, the food industry is likely to respond by shifting to safer alternatives. Voicing these opinions to food producers and to policymakers is also important. 

That being said, consumers do not need to be paranoid, or panic stricken about these additives.  An occasional treat of a food containing them should not pose a risk. However, it is best to not consume such foods on a regular basis.

How do I (or my children) avoid them? Are there other ingredients or products we should avoid?

When purchasing food and beverages, read ingredients lists to determine if these ingredients are present. If you purchase items at restaurant chains, you can go on their websites to find ingredient lists. Foods that require the most careful attention include colored beverages and foods, baked goods (desserts, refined breads, tortillas), candies, and creamers, creamed sauces, dressings, and soups. 

Selecting flours, breads and other baked goods that are whole grain and/or organic is a good strategy. The word “natural” is not necessarily a good guide because there is no set definition of that word for food labels. “No artificial ingredients” is a bit better as a guide. Major brands are less likely to contain these additives than non-name brand items, but reading ingredient lists is the best practice. Terms to watch out for include bromated or bleached. 

A general guideline is to minimize intake of highly processed food and beverages, especially those with artificial additives, and aim to consume items that are closer to their sources with less refining, industrial formulations, and artificial additives.