The original recipe for bright pink Peeps is at the center of a controversy involving potentially problematic chemicals found in many foods. While it’s generally understood that junk food contains poor ingredients, now we know more about which ones are particularly problematic, more specifically, potentially carcinogenic.
A bill to ban four food-related chemicals including red dyes advanced in California’s state Senate, after dropping a fifth chemical as the legislation was amended.
While many candies across the board need to change their recipes to something healthier—pink-colored Peeps are among the ones that need it most. The bright pink color of Peeps is achieved through the dyes including erythrosine, a chemical that shows up on ingredient labels as “Red No. 3.” Other chemical dyes like titanium dioxide for white—also found in Peeps—have been linked to cancer. (To be fair, Skittles, Starburst, Ring Pops, Hot Tamales, and Trolli also use titanium dioxide to achieve bright colors in candy.) Peeps were introduced in 1953 as yellow marshmallow chicks designed for children, and the other bright colors with those ingredients followed decades later.
Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, (D) representing California’s 46th State Assembly district in San Fernando Valley authored Assembly Bill 418, saying he wants to ban the chemicals—not necessarily the candy. According to Gabriel, the aforementioned chemicals have already been banned by the European Union (EU) and other countries.
“It is unacceptable that the U.S. is so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to food safety,” Gabriel said. “This bill will not ban any foods or products—it simply will require food companies to make minor modifications to their recipes.”
Gabriel listed potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil, and propyl paraben, which also have been banned in the EU, also as ingredients that need to go. An earlier draft of the bill would also have banned titanium dioxide, but amendments in the state Senate removed that chemical from the ban. Some of these ingredients can be found in practically any processed food including bread, Jell-O, and so on.
One case study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 involves a man who had growths on his fingers, pictured here, after consuming brominated vegetable oil in Ruby Red Squirt. (However, he drank eight liters per day.)
Gabriel said last summer that alternative ingredients are readily available. Through expensive, albeit minor modifications to their recipes, the candy makers can do what’s already been done in the EU.
Gabriel quoted Mercury News, posting on X, “If candy makers won’t do the right thing, lawmakers must. The scientific studies provide sufficient concerns that California should not keep putting its children at risk.”
The Food Industry’s 30-Year-Old Dirty Secret
Researchers have known the pigments to be carcinogenic for at least 30 years: In 1990, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of Red Dye No. 3 in cosmetic products like lipsticks, powders, blushes and skin care lotions, based on research suggesting that it can lead to cancer. If something isn’t safe for your skin, it might not be good to eat either.
If that makes you unsettled—considering how widespread the use of erythrosine and titanium dioxide is—you’re not alone: Last year, a consumer filed a lawsuit against Mars for knowingly allowing a “known toxin” to be used in candy products. The class-action lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, and attorneys for San Leandro resident Jenile Thames said Skittles are unsafe for consumption, having what they say are heightened levels of titanium dioxide.
In 2016, Mars said it would be phasing out titanium dioxide, aka E171, however that plan doesn’t appear to have materialized in full. Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Food Safety said at the time, “We are pleased to see that MARS has taken a positive step toward eliminating toxic, unnecessary nanomaterials from its line of food products. We urge the company to speed up the removal of these additives, especially given the grave health concerns associated with titanium dioxide and other nanoparticles.”
Don’t Forget Aspartame
In other recent news, other ingredients have been flagged as carcinogenic. Aspartame is used in Coca-Cola’s Diet Coke and it’s also used to sweeten Mars’s Extra chewing gum.
Last summer, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research agency said aspartame is a possible carcinogen. WHO representatives contradictorily said aspartame may possibly cause cancer but also said it is safe to consume. IARC, WHO’s research arm, classifies aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” after it was found to lead to blood cancers in rats by Italian researchers. You be the judge.
The FDA also appeared to quell consumer alarm: “Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply. FDA scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions,” the FDA said in a statement.
Many people in the U.S. say they actually prefer candy with slightly less sugar and sweeteners. If candy in Europe feels safer than candy in the U.S., it is, and it’s not just the excessively high sugar content you have to worry about.