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Here are the concerns with artificial food dyes, as California weighs a ban in schools

Students finish their lunch at Lowell Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., on Aug. 22, 2023. A legislative proposal would ban six artificial food dyes in California schools.
Susan Montoya Bryan
/
AP
Students finish their lunch at Lowell Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., on Aug. 22, 2023. A legislative proposal would ban six artificial food dyes in California schools.

You may have heard that California wants to ban Flamin' Hot Cheetos. That's only partially true.

Under a proposal in the state legislature, public schools across California would no longer be allowed to serve foods that contain certain substances, including some artificial dyes commonly found in snacks.

It comes about five months after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the California Food Safety Act, which outlawed the sale of food and drinks that contained certain ingredients, including brominated vegetable oil and red dye 3.

Supporters of the new bill point to a possible link between artificial dyes and child development problems as a reason to outlaw the additives in schools, but some in the food industry have countered that there's not enough scientific evidence to make that connection.

"California has a responsibility to protect our students from chemicals that harm children and that can interfere with their ability to learn," Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said in a press release.

Some of the food items that could disappear from school cafeterias include Doritos, M&Ms, sports drinks and sugary breakfast cereals such as Froot Loops and Cap'n Crunch, CapRadio reported.

Do food dyes really harm kids?

The bill would prohibit schools from serving foods containing six food dyes — blue 1, blue 2, green 3, red 40, yellow 5 and yellow 6 — as well as titanium dioxide.

Gabriel points to a 2021 report from the California Environmental Protection Agency, which found that the consumption of food dyes can cause or worsen hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children.

Though the Food and Drug Administration approves additives, including dyes, used in food and drinks in the U.S., critics have increasingly pushed on the agency to reevaluate its decisions to permit certain substances that may now be understood to be harmful.

Some parents worried about the health effects of artificial dyes have appealedto snack makers directly, and companies have taken action. Kraft Foods announced in 2013 that it was removing artificial food dyes from its mac and cheese and replacing them with spices such as paprika, annatto and turmeric.

The additive titanium dioxide, which is also targeted in the California bill, produces a "smooth finish" and shine in food and has been in use for more than half a century, according to the Environmental Working Group.

In 2022 it was banned by the European Commission, which said it could not rule out that titanium dioxide may pose a health risk and present "genotoxicity" concerns, which means it could cause DNA or chromosomal damage.

Still, some food producers argue that the decision to pull additives from the shelf should be up to regulators at the FDA — not lawmakers.

"These activists are dismantling our national food safety system state by state in an emotionally-driven campaign that lacks scientific backing," Christopher Gindlesperger, a spokesperson for the National Confectioners Association, said in a statement.

"The only institution in America that can stop this sensationalistic agenda that is not based on facts and science is the FDA," he said.

What's next for this proposal in California?

Gabriel, the legislator, said he expected the bill to be heard in the Assembly Education Committee in the coming weeks.

A spokesperson for the Association of California School Administrators told the Los Angeles Times that few schools currently sell snacks that would be subject to the ban, and the biggest impact would be on student stores raising money for student funds.

As for Flamin' Hot Cheetos, the question of their fate remains — like many a bag of the crunch orange puffs — open.

The popular snack does contain several of the artificial dyes that would be banned under the proposal, including yellow 5 and yellow 6, but the current bill only applies to the sale of such snacks in public schools.

Backers of such bans have suggested that manufacturers can simply tweak their recipes to comply with any new prohibitions — and that consumers will continue to nosh on their snack of choice.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez