California is taking the red out of red velvet cake

Skittles contain titanium dioxide, another one of five food additives banned by the state as of 2025
California is taking the red out of red velvet cake
Photo: POOL (Reuters)
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California has become the first US state to ban food additives used in candies, cake mixes, and protein shakes, due to concerns linked to cancer and other health issues.

The new legislation targets chemicals that are already banned in the European Union—brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, titanium dioxide, Red 3 dye, and propylparaben, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on May 30. Starting in 2025, these five ingredients will be prohibited in the manufacturing of food items sold in California. As a result, food makers will have to change their product formulas while ensuring the same quality.

Violations will attract a fine of up to $5,000 for the first offense and $10,000 for each subsequent infraction, according to the bill.

While Red 3 is used in packaged cookies, frostings, red velvet cake, and other snacks, citrus-flavored beverages such as Mountain Dew use brominated vegetable oil to stop ingredients from separating. Skittles, a popular candy in the US, contain titanium dioxide for better color and longer shelf life.

Risks linked to cancer and immune system problems

The five chemicals in question are said to increase the risk of cancer, reproductive, and immune system issues, as well as behavioral and developmental problems in children, Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, told the Los Angeles Times.

Seven synthetic food dyes approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, including Red 3, were associated with neurobehavioral issues in some children, such as memory and learning difficulties, a report by California Environmental Protection Agency found in 2021.

The US’s International Association of Color Manufacturers, in a statement earlier this month, said no regulatory authority “has found credible safety concerns with these additives [Red 3 and titanium dioxide].” Banning the food agents would “unnecessarily [override] established safety standards,” it added.

Finding alternative ingredients won’t be feasible for smaller firms

Changing a product’s formula would take time and resources, which many smaller companies might not be able to afford, WSJ cited a food industry executive as saying.

Small and mid-sized candy companies in the US are already grappling with a slew of challenges related to supply chain hurdles, high commodity prices, and labour shortages. For many bakeries and sweets manufacturers, it’s about outright survival.

“The California Assembly is well-intentioned, but this is not the right way to do it,” Christopher Gindlesperger, senior vice president of public affairs for the National Confectioners Association, told the WSJ. The association represents candy manufacturers throughout the US.

Reformulating products won’t be an easy feat for big firms, either.

Approval of the California legislation could trigger other states to follow suit. Either way, businesses might have to make changes to recipes across their manufacturing units nationwide. “We generally don’t see companies marketing separate versions of products for California and then for the rest of the country,” Frederick Stearns, a partner at the law firm Keller and Heckman, told the WSJ.

Companies are often hesitant to change their recipes for popular, well-known foods, Stearns added.