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California Assembly passes bill that would ban the sale of Skittles

The measure would prohibit the manufacture, sale, or distribution of any food product in California containing the chemicals red dye No. 3 and other food additives.

A new bill in the California legislature aims to change the ingredient makeup of some of America’s most popular snacks, candies and other foods sold in stores, according to the bill’s author — and it just passed the Assembly.

In February, Jesse Gabriel, a Democratic assemblymember from Woodland Hills, California, introduced legislation that would ban the sale of processed foods in California that contain certain chemicals he claims are dangerous and toxic. 

The measure, Assembly Bill (AB) 418, would prohibit the manufacture, sale or distribution of any food product in California containing the chemicals red dye No. 3 (commonly listed as red #3 in ingredients on food packaging), titanium dioxide, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil or propylparaben. 

The bill notes that each chemical listed is currently banned in the European Union due to scientific studies that have shown evidence that the chemicals are harmful.

In the release, Gabriel points to various studies and reports showing these additives can cause harm to the reproductive and immune systems, behavioral issues in children and an increased cancer risk in animals.

“Californians shouldn’t have to worry that the food they buy in their neighborhood grocery store might be full of dangerous additives or toxic chemicals,” said Gabriel, who is the chair of the Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, in a press release.

The Assembly approved the bill on Monday, May 15. If passed in the California State Senate, AB 418 would make the Golden State the first state in the nation to ban the use of these chemicals in processed foods. One of these chemicals, red dye No. 3, is already banned for use in cosmetics — and has been since 1990.

The measure is expected to be heard in committees in the coming weeks.

What are these additives and why are they used?

According to the FDA's website, there are thousands of chemicals added to food to make it last longer, taste better and improve the overall look of certain items. The government agency says that all food additives are “carefully regulated by federal authorities and various international organizations to ensure that foods are safe to eat and are accurately labeled.”

According to Justin Colacino, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, these specific additives are used in processed foods in the following ways:

  • Red dye No. 3, a food dye, is added to products to make them bright red. It's currently banned for use in cosmetics, but it's still used in candy, medicine and beverages.
  • Titanium dioxide is a naturally occurring mineral that is mined from the earth, processed and refined. While it’s used to obtain whiteness in house paint, it’s also added to food to achieve the same purpose in items like some coffee creamers, baking decorations, white sauces and well-known candies.
  • Potassium bromate is primarily used as an additive to flour and is used to strengthen dough.
  • Brominated vegetable oil is a food additive sometimes used to keep citrus flavoring from separating out in sodas and other beverages.
  • Propylparaben is a preservative that helps stabilize product formulations. It’s used in food but also appears in cosmetics and personal care products.

Titanium dioxide
Titanium dioxide, an essential ingredient in modern paints.Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The California bill states that most of these chemicals have never been independently evaluated by the FDA or were last reviewed decades ago and that these chemicals are generally known to have first entered the nation’s food supply through a federal law known as GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe”  that applies to items like vinegar, salt and pepper but has come to include thousands of other substances.

The FDA says the information in the bill is incorrect. “The claim that these substances have not undergone FDA review is inaccurate. All these substances have been evaluated by the FDA,” an FDA official tells TODAY.com in an email.

“According to U.S. law (Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act) ingredients added to food must be safe under their intended conditions of use, and safety information must be available to establish a reasonable certainty of no harm before they are used in products on the market,” the official continues. “The FDA administers several programs to help manufacturers demonstrate that the available data supports the safety of the substance when used as proposed.”

TODAY.com reached out to Mars, the makers of Skittles, who referred us to the National Confectioners Association, as the McLean, Virginia candy conglomerate is one of the associations' biggest member companies. In response to the recent introduction of California AB 418, the National Confectioners Association issued the following statement: 

“Chocolate and candy are safe to enjoy, as they have been for centuries. We strongly oppose AB 418 because there is no evidence to support banning the ingredients listed in the bill. The ingredients that would be banned under this proposal have all been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food safety is the number one priority for U.S. confectionery companies, and we do not use any ingredients in our products that do not comply with the FDA’s strictest safety standards.” 

Gabriel told TODAY.com in an email that he would vote against an outright ban of Skittles, the bill he authored actually aims for a different goal. 

 “The idea here is for these companies to make minor modifications to their recipes so that these products don’t include dangerous and toxic chemicals. Skittles and many other brands have already made changes to their recipes in the European Union, the UK, and other nations where these chemicals are banned. We simply want them to do the same thing in the United States,” Gabriel says.

Should consumers be worried?

The fact that Europe bans more ingredients used in processed foods than the United States does has sparked debate for years. But, how worried should consumers be about these additives?

“Moderation is key, right?” Colacino says, adding that highly processed foods aren’t things folks should be consuming every day, anyway. “There are things that are in highly processed foods that we know don’t have a ton of nutritive value in the first place, so I think it’s good for people to be aware of the ingredients in their food.”

For people who are concerned with the ubiquity of these additives in all sorts of food, Colacino suggests consuming more fruits, vegetables and whole foods. ”There’s a lot of other stuff these products do that aren’t great for you, so I think moderation is key,” he says.

For people concerned with the additives in their food, Colacino says reading the label is key.

“Look at your ingredient lists. What’s in there?” he says, adding that consumers can focus on preparing their own food at home, if they can. “I think just trying to be a savvy consumer, pay attention to what’s in your foods, think about how you can decrease the intake of foods that contain these additives and replace those with healthy alternatives is going to be good for everybody.”