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No, California Is Not Trying to Ban Skittles

Apr 02, 2023

But a proposed law in the state could encourage companies to reformulate their products without certain harmful ingredients, as many already have in Europe

Headlines about a recently proposed California state law might give the impression that police may soon be patrolling the streets, snatching candy from the mouths of babes.

"California law could ban sale of candies like Skittles, Pez," wrote the NY Post. "Californians who have a sweet tooth could soon be out of luck," said the San Joaquin Valley Sun. Other media outlets warned about potential bans of Sour Patch Kids, Nerds, certain varieties of Campbell's soup, and "other popular snacks."

In fact, the bill, known as AB-418, is aimed not at specific products but at five chemicals that have been linked to a range of serious health problems yet continue to be used in food in the U.S. They are: brominated vegetable oil (BVO), potassium bromate, propyl paraben, Red Dye No. 3, and titanium dioxide.

Supporters of the bill, which was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on May 3 and is expected to get a full Assembly vote next week, say all the chemicals it targets can be replaced with less risky alternatives that would not add significantly, if at all, to consumer prices. For example, sorbic acid can be used instead of propyl paraben, ester gum instead of BVO, and calcium carbonate instead of titanium dioxide. They note, in fact, that several products for sale in the U.S. with those chemicals have been reformulated without them for European markets, where the ingredients are banned in food.

"There is no realistic chance that this bill will result in Skittles or any other product being pulled off the shelf," says Jesse Gabriel, one of the State Assembly members who introduced the bill. "The idea here is for these companies to make minor modifications to their recipes so that these products no longer include dangerous and toxic chemicals."

Skittles, in fact, has already been reformulated in Europe to eliminate the use of titanium dioxide. Skittles in the U.S. still contain the chemical, which functions as a sort of primer, making the colors applied to the candy afterward more vivid. Titanium dioxide has been linked to serious digestive tract problems in lab animals and was banned in Europe because scientists there could not rule out genotoxicity, the ability of the substance to damage genetic material in the body's cells.

Mars, the maker of Skittles, actually announced in 2016 that it would "remove all artificial colors from its human food products." But it later reversed that decision, explaining on its website that "many of our consumers across the world do not, in fact, find artificial colors to be ingredients of concern. For that reason, we will continue to prioritize our efforts to remove artificial colors in Europe—where consumers have expressed this preference—but will not be removing all artificial colors from our Mars Wrigley portfolio in other markets."

"In some instances, our recipes vary slightly across the globe to accommodate consumer preferences," a Mars company spokesperson told Consumer Reports.

Consumer advocates are skeptical that such decisions are truly reflective of consumer preferences. "There's no way Americans have said, ‘Yeah, I want more toxic chemicals with my candy,’" says Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, which co-sponsored the proposed California law along with CR. "I’m really sure that American parents love their children as much as European parents do."

Pez appears to be another company that continues to use one of the five targeted chemicals—Red Dye No. 3, in this case—in products sold in the U.S. and Canada, while selling a version in the E.U. and much of the rest of the world without it. That ingredient, also known as FD&C Red No. 3 and Red Dye 3, is a food coloring used to give a bright, cherry-red color to thousands of food products now on U.S. shelves, including candies, baked goods, snacks, and cereals. It 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 Food and Drug Administration to ban its use in cosmetics more than 30 years ago.

In Europe, Pez are colored with fruit and plant concentrates, including blackcurrants, carrots, grapes, and sweet potato.

Pez referred CR to a statement from the National Confectioners Association, which says the organization strongly opposes "AB 418 because there is no evidence to support banning the ingredients listed in the bill" and maintains that all five have all been approved by the FDA.

The agency reviewed most of the chemicals decades ago, but CR's food safety experts say the science has changed dramatically since then. BVO 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.

Meanwhile, other manufacturers have removed the targeted chemicals from their products.

In 2015, Campbell's announced plans to remove artificial colors and flavors from nearly all of its North American products by the end of fiscal 2018. The company says on its website that it has made "significant progress" toward that goal but has since had to "pause and reassess our plans" after a series of acquisitions added new brands to the company's portfolio. A company spokesperson says it currently uses titanium dioxide in two products, Chunky Healthy Request Chicken Corn Chowder and Chunky Healthy Request New England Clam Chowder, to "make the food more visually appealing" and "we continue to look at alternative solutions."

The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo both agreed in 2014 to stop using BVO, which has been linked in animal studies to neurological, thyroid, heart, and liver problems, as well as behavioral, developmental, and reproductive issues. The substance functions as an emulsifier in citrus-flavored beverages to prevent the flavor oils from separating. Coca-Cola no longer uses BVO in Fanta and Fresca, while Pepsi removed it from Mountain Dew and Gatorade.

Send a message to California legislators to support efforts to ban Red Dye No. 3 and other dangerous ingredients in food.

According to a database maintained by the Environmental Working Group, however, BVO remains an ingredient in about 70 sodas and beverages. That includes Sun Drop, made by Keurig Dr Pepper, as well as citrus-flavored sodas sold under private label or store brand names, such as Food Lion and Super Chill. Food Lion told CR it is reviewing its use of BVO. Keurig Dr Pepper told CR that BVO "is safe [and] permitted by the FDA." A spokesperson for Super Chill says that if the California bill becomes law, the company "will take necessary action with our supply chain partners" to comply with it.

While a handful of well-known brand-name products still contain the chemicals targeted by the California law, they appear to be more often included in generic, regional, store brand, or private label brand names. Of the 180 products listed in the EWG database as containing potassium bromate, for example, relatively few appear to be produced by well-known national brands.

"Given that many of these private label brands are found in discount stores in predominantly low-income neighborhoods, they literally put a price on lowering your risk of toxic food chemicals exposure," says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for CR. "The ability to avoid toxic food chemicals shouldn't be income-based."

Consumer advocates are hopeful that if the proposed California law passes, it will encourage manufacturers to reformulate their products using safer ingredients throughout the U.S., as many have already done in Europe.

Meanwhile, the best way to avoid these chemicals is to read the ingredient list of the foods you eat. If they’re in there, they must be listed.

You can also look up ingredients of thousands of food products, and search them by brand or category, using the EWG's Food Scores database. Of course, looking up everything can be exhausting, so keep in mind the kinds of foods these additives are often used in: candy, sodas, packaged breads, tortillas, cookies and other baked goods, and shredded cheese, and especially in generic store brands.

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.