The FDA says it causes cancer. Yet it’s in hundreds of candies.
It is illegal to use the carcinogenic color additive Red 3 in cosmetics, such as lipsticks or blusher, or drugs for external use. Yet the discredited chemical lurks in common varieties of candy corn, nerd, Peeps, pez, SweetTartsand hundreds of candies, cakes and other foods, including dozens of seasonal products Halloween items. That’s why the Center for Science in the Public Interest and 23 other leading organizations and scientists are today urging the Food and Drug Administration to officially remove Red 3 from the list of approved color additives in foods, dietary supplements and oral medications.
Since the early 1980s, the FDA had evidence that Red 3 caused cancer in laboratory animals. The National Toxicology Program deemed the evidence “compelling”. As a result, in 1990 the agency eliminated certain “tentatively listed” uses of the chemical, i.e. cosmetics and drugs for external use. In 1990, the FDA also said it would “take action” to ban its use in foods, ingested drugs, and supplements. But these measures were never taken.
“Halloween has never been the healthiest holiday, but few parents would believe the FDA would allow the use of a dye known to cause cancer as a common ingredient in candy,” said CSPI consultant Lisa Y. Lefferts. . “Even fewer would believe that the FDA bans this carcinogen in makeup but allows it in food.”
Despite the government finding that Red 3 causes cancer, food companies continue to use it widely. A search for Food Scores, a database maintained by the Environmental Working Group, generated 2,876 branded food products containing Red 3, including hundreds of foods made by the nation’s largest food companies. candy company by Brach alone sells over 100 different candies with the dye. In addition to appearing in Pez and Peeps, Red 3 is used in some varieties of Betty Crocker’s fruit at the foot, Dubble Bubble Chewing Gum, Entenmann’s little bitesand Hostess Ding Dongs. Albertson’s, Kroger, Meijer’s, Target and Walmart all use Red 3 in some of their private label products. And even some non-candy foods that you’d think wouldn’t need artificial coloring contain red 3, like Mashed potatoes topped with Betty Crocker. And sometimes Red 3 can act to simulate the presence of a desirable ingredient: Yellow rice with saffron from Vigo indeed has reputedly expensive saffron, it gets at least some of its color from red 3. Even PediaSure Grow & Gain Ready-to-Drink Strawberry Shake for Kids contains red 3, but no strawberries.
Long-term animal feeding studies show that Red 3 causes adenomas and carcinomas of the thyroid gland. When a substance is shown to cause cancer in animals, it is presumed to cause cancer in humans. Amendments to the country’s food laws passed in 1958 and 1960 included a provision called the Delaney Clause which prohibits the approval of any food additives and colorings if they are shown to cause cancer in people or animals. For this reason, the petition filed today by the CSPI and other groups and scientists indicates that the FDA is legally obligated to remove Red 3 from the list.
“It’s outrageous that the Food and Drug Administration has known since the 1980s that Red 3 has the potential to cause cancer, but still allows it to be used in the foods we eat,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at EWG, which is one of the groups petitioning the FDA today. “This is yet another glaring example of how the FDA has let consumers down when it comes to food safety.”
“If the data was strong enough to ban Red 3 in cosmetics and external medications 30 years ago, surely it is strong enough to ban it in foods, oral medications and dietary supplements today,” said CSPI President Dr. Peter Lurie.
CSPI’s advice to parents is to avoid not just red 3, but all numbered dyes, such as yellow 5 and red 40. In addition to the cancer risk posed by red 3, concerns have grown over the adverse effects on children’s behavior. In 2008, CSPI has petitioned the FDA to remove them from the food supply as well. Since, The California Environmental Health Risk Assessment Board has confirmed these dyes cause neurobehavioral problems in some children.
Despite the risks, some prescription medications still contain Red 3. Vyvanse, billed as the “No. 1 prescription brand-name ADHD drug,” contains it. This is somewhat ironic, according to the CSPI, since behavior problems associated with food coloring are often described as similar to symptoms associated with ADHD.
“The FDA has had more than 30 years to ban the carcinogen Red 3, an artificial food coloring used in many products, including the candy that people will hand out this Halloween,” said Tom Neltner of the Environmental Defense Funds. “Is the agency red in the face? No way. With this petition on color additives, we formally demand that the agency do its job. The law gives the agency 180 days to make a final decision. Hopefully, when the kids go for a ride next year, the FDA will have done its part to make the holidays safer for everyone.
Besides CSPI, EDF, EWG and Lefferts, the petition was submitted by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, Chef Ann Foundation, Children’s Advocacy Institute, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, Defend our Health, Feingold Association, Food & Water Watch, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, Life Time Foundation, Moms Rising, Prevention Institute, Public Citizen, Public Health Institute, Public Interest Research Group and Real Food for Kids. Individual scientists signing the petition include Linda S. Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program; and Boston College pediatrician and epidemiologist Philip J. Landrigan, who directs both the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good and the Global Observatory on Planetary Health.
The food and pharmaceutical industries used over 200,000 pounds of Red 3 in 2021 alone.
“The main purpose of food coloring is usually to make junk food more appealing, especially to children, or to trick their parents into thinking a food contains a healthy fruit like strawberries,” Lurie said. “When the objective is purely cosmetic, why is any level of risk acceptable?”