Oct 10, 2023 - Health

Unwrapping California's food additives ban

an illustration of candy canes and peppermint rounds in varying colors forming exclamation points

Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

California is banning four potentially harmful food additives in the first state law of its kind, which takes effect in 2027.

The big picture: California officials say they're banning red dye No. 3, brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate and propylparaben from being manufactured, sold or distributed in the state because they can be harmful, but the FDA says the move could disrupt food supply and create higher prices.

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law Saturday the California Food Safety Act — which was originally dubbed the "Skittles bill" because an earlier version included titanium dioxide, a legal color additive found in the rainbow-colored candy, among other sweets.
  • Here's a breakdown of the banned food additives included in the law and their potential harms:

Red dye No. 3

  • Used for food coloring, red dye No. 3 is found in over 3,200 consumer goods, according to the Environmental Working Group.
  • The FDA banned red dye No. 3 in 1990 when used in cosmetics and externally applied drugs, but the agency still allows for the additive in foods.
  • Red dye No. 3 has sparked controversy for potential health risks, including its link to cancer in laboratory animals, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
  • A 2021 report found that "consumption of synthetic food dyes can result in hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral problems in some children," per the California Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
  • The European Union only permits red dye No. 3 in certain candied or cocktail cherries.

Brominated vegetable oil

  • This type of oil, added in with the substance bromine, "is used in small amounts to keep the citrus flavoring from floating to the top in some beverages," per the FDA.
  • The agency said it has "identified areas where additional information about possible health effects is needed" and is "working to obtain this information."
  • The FDA told Axios in an emailed statement it is in the process of amending its current guidelines on brominated vegetable oil and aims to remove its authorization as a food ingredient based on new data.
  • The food additive, still found in some beverages such as Sun Drop's citrus-flavored soda, has prompted multiple health concerns and has been linked to certain neurological problems.
  • A 2022 FDA study found that oral exposure to the additive "is associated with increased tissue levels of bromine and that at high levels of exposure the thyroid is a target organ of potential negative health effects in rodents."

Potassium bromate

  • Potassium bromate, used in breads and baked goods, is an oxidizing agent meant to improve dough, per Michigan State University's Center for Research on Ingredient Safety.
  • Current FDA guidelines say potassium bromate cannot exceed "more than 0.0075 part for each 100 parts by weight of flour used."
  • When consumed at proper heat, potassium bromate is not shown to cause harm in humans, per the Michigan State center.
  • At significant doses, researchers found that in rodents, the additive harms both DNA and cells and causes cancer.


  • Propylparabens are among the different kinds of parabens, which are "commonly used as preservatives in cosmetics," per the FDA.
  • The agency says the food additive is safe at "a maximum level of 0.1 percent in food."
  • A variety of baked goods contain propylparabens, according to the Environmental Working Group.
  • The group classifies the food additive as an "endocrine disruptor," citing research revealing "it acts as a synthetic estrogenic compound and can alter hormone signaling and gene expression" and that exposure might be associated with "diminished fertility."

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