Newly proposed bills in California and New York are putting food additives — chemicals manufacturers add to food to act as preservatives or enhance color, texture or flavor — under the microscope.

State legislators are seeking to ban the manufacture and sale of products containing additives linked to cancer, neurodevelopmental problems and hormone dysfunction. The five additives named in the bill are commonly found in baked goods, candy and soda, and are almost entirely banned in food products in Europe. Several health organizations, including the Endocrine Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have expressed concern about the potential health harm of food additives as a whole.

The bills, if approved, would both go into effect in 2025 The California bill’s sponsors, Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel and Assemblywoman Buffy Weeks, said the restrictions would especially protect children, who are more susceptible than adults to potential risks.

“Kids eat more, pound for pound,” says Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a professor of pediatrics at NYU Langone Health who specializes in environmental health. “Their developing organs are particularly vulnerable.”

The New York Times asked experts about these five additives and how to avoid or limit exposure if you’re concerned.

In deciding which to include, state lawmakers, in collaboration with the nonprofit Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group, looked for additives banned in Europe and still widely used in the United States and where research showed strong evidence of health risks.

“These five were really the worst of the worst,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

  • Red color is No. 3 Used in about 3,000 food products, including icing, nutritional shakes, maraschino cherries, and peppermint-, berry-, and cherry-flavored candies. It has been shown to cause cancer in animals, prompting the US Food and Drug Administration to ban its use in cosmetics in 1990. At the time, the agency said it would work to expand the ban to food, but the chemical remains in use. Today. There are also concerns that this and other artificial food colors may contribute to behavioral problems in children, such as hyperactivity.

  • Titanium dioxide Acts as a whitener, color enhancer and anti-caking agent in thousands of food products. It is present in many candies, as well as baked goods, creamy salad dressings, and frozen dairy products such as cheese pizza and ice cream. A safety assessment conducted by the European Food Safety Authority in 2021 concluded that titanium dioxide damages DNA and can damage the immune system, leading to its ban in the EU in 2022.

  • Brominated vegetable oil Acts as an emulsifier in fruit drinks and sodas. Research on mice — including a study published by the FDA in 2022 — suggests that brominated vegetable oil acts as an endocrine disruptor, specifically affecting thyroid hormones. A previous study found that it can also harm the reproductive system. Because of its potential risks, many major brands, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, have recently stopped using the chemical, but it is still in some smaller and grocery store beverage brands.

  • Potassium bromate It is primarily found in baked goods, including bread, cookies and tortillas, where it acts as a leavening agent and improves texture. The additive is classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, based on animal studies.

  • Propylparaben A preservative used in packaged baked goods, especially pastries and tortillas. It is also present in many cosmetics and personal care products. Numerous studies in humans and animals indicate that propylparaben acts as an endocrine disruptor and affects male and female reproductive health.

“These five are great if you want to start somewhere,” says Dr. Sheela Satyanarayan, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington who studies endocrine disruptors. “They have strong health data, they are widely used in many products, so there is probably a very large exposure.”

In response to the California bill, which was released earlier in New York, a coalition of food industry organizations wrote an opposition letter saying, “These five additives have been thoroughly reviewed by federal and state agencies and many international scientific organizations and continue to be considered safe.” National Confectioners A spokeswoman for the association, a trade organization that represents candy makers, echoed that in an email to The Times, saying its members comply with FDA guidelines.

An FDA official wrote in an email to The Times that the agency evaluates food additives based on several factors, including “anticipated amount of food (food exposure)” and “laboratory studies supporting safety.”

In practice, however, many chemicals are approved under a provision known as generally recognized as safe, which states that a food additive can avoid review by the FDA if it is deemed safe by “qualified experts.”

If concerns arise after a chemical has already been approved, or if new, relevant research becomes available, “FDA reevaluates the safety of ingredients,” agency officials wrote. For example, the FDA reviewed the evidence on titanium dioxide after the EU decided to ban it in 2022. The findings report determined that “there is no evidence that dietary exposure to the additive is of concern to human health.”

A point of contention is that most of the research on these additives has been done in animals because it is difficult (and unethical) to conduct toxicology studies in humans. As a result, “it is impossible to say with absolute precision that eliminating Red 3 or titanium dioxide from the American diet will reduce the number of people suffering from cancer by a certain amount,” Mr. Faber said. “But anything we can do to reduce exposure to carcinogens, known or suspected carcinogens, is a step in the right direction.”

Dr. Satyanarayan added that, “Although an individual food may not have a potentially harmful exposure concentration, the many foods we eat begin to accumulate in the body. And our regulatory system misses that whole concept.”

The best way to stay away from potentially dangerous food additives is to avoid eating prepared, processed foods and stick to fresh ingredients instead. If you’re buying something packaged, be sure to read the label. Dr Satyanarayan says a good rule of thumb is to choose foods with short ingredient lists and avoid foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce. He cites the preservatives butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, and beef containing bovine growth hormone as other chemicals to try to avoid.

In the past few years, several food manufacturers and grocery store chains have stopped using or selling products containing some or all of these additives, according to the Environmental Working Group. All five additives have chemical alternatives that serve the same purpose and have been deemed safe for human consumption—but they are more expensive. If the bills pass, it could inspire more brands because it may not be economically prudent to produce one batch for California and New York and another batch for the rest of the US.

Some experts say the bills don’t go far enough. Instead, they say a complete overhaul of the FDA’s review process is necessary.

“While I appreciate that focusing on five chemicals is appropriate, it really misses a broader problem and a systemic problem,” Dr. Trasande said. In a policy statement he and Dr. Satyanarayan wrote on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, they called for nine changes to how the federal government regulates food additives.

Similarly, Mr. Faber called the generally accepted safety review process a “loophole” that should be closed, saying many of the outside experts who do the reviews are employed by the chemical companies that make the additives.

“Consumers can certainly read labels and avoid these chemicals, but we shouldn’t rely on consumers to keep us safe,” he said. “We have an FDA that was charged in 1958 with ensuring the safety of these food chemicals, and the FDA has let us down.”

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