Should California Ban Skittles?

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I love living in California and I truly believe that it’s the best state in the US, but even I admit that sometimes it lives up to its stereotype of being full of stupid hippies. For instance, everywhere you go in California you will see “Prop 65 warning signs,” which tell you that some substance somewhere nearby is potentially hazardous to your health. They’re completely useless, because we seriously see them everywhere and they contain no helpful information on what we’re supposed to be warned of, exactly, or why.

That’s why, when I first saw an article that California is considering a ban on Skittles, I laughed and rolled my eyes. Crazy hippies, with their “chemical phobia,” right? But when I dug into it, I actually ended up coming to the opposite conclusion: California is right. We SHOULD ban Skittles. Well, not really, but we should do what the bill in question (Assembly Bill 418) proposes, which is to ban processed foods with five chemicals that are suspected to be dangerous to human health: red dye no. 3, titanium dioxide, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil and propyl paraben.

Backing up just a bit, let’s talk about Prop 65. Remember last month when I talked about how California finally started cracking down on corporations like PG&E polluting groundwater in the late 1980s? Well, in 1988 California passed proposition 65, which was meant to ensure that our drinking water was safe by putting the burden not on the EPA to “catch” big businesses screwing up, but on the big businesses themselves to PROVE they were engaging in safe processes, and to proactively flag any dangerous ingredients in their products or else face potential lawsuits from consumers.

While today we see Prop 65 as a useless joke, back when it was passed it actually worked REALLY well: many companies rushed to reformulate their products to remove known hazardous materials. A 2005 survey found that the products included “brass faucets, ceramic tableware (i.e., china dishes), calcium supplements, water meters, water filters, galvanized pipe, crystal decanters, foil caps on wine bottles, brass keys, hand tools, exercise weights, raincoats and other plastic clothing, electrical tape, electrical cords and wires, bicycle cable locks, CD wallets, baby rash powders and creams, anti-diarrheal medicines, hair dyes, hemorrhoidal medicines, nasal sprays, correction fluid, spot remover, paint strippers, shoe waterproofing spray, nail polish and nail polish remover, dandruff shampoos, bottled water, wooden playground structures, and portable classrooms.”

Unfortunately, that early success bred disaster: lawmakers added more and more chemicals to Prop 65, sometimes without real evidence of harm, like with acrylamide. Studies from the ‘80s linked it to cancer in rats but there’s insufficient evidence of any causal link or harm in humans. And unfortunately it’s in a load of common foods, like French fries and potato chips; crackers, bread, and cookies; breakfast cereals; canned black olives; prune juice; and coffee.

Combine that with a group of lawyers who saw that suing small businesses for Prop 65 violations was the fast track to quick settlements, and bam: everyone now just slaps the warning on everything to protect themselves from being sued, meaning that people now can’t take the warnings seriously because we would be unable to move around and live normal lives and avoid everything with the warning.

And with that comes the easy dismissal of new legislation meant to stop businesses from poisoning consumers, like my eyeroll at the idea of banning Skittles. I mean, come on, who would ban Skittles? I mean, besides the entirety of Europe.

That’s right, in 2021 the EU updated their guidelines to state that titanium dioxide, an additive used in Skittles and other products to make colors pop, is no longer considered safe. A ban went into effect last August, and many manufacturers changed their recipes to remove it so they can continue to sell.

That same summer of 2022, a California woman launched a lawsuit against Skittles for their continued use of the ingredient, citing the EU’s guidelines as evidence that the additive is dangerous.

So, IS titanium dioxide harmful? Honestly, it’s hard to say. Like with acrylamide, animal studies show evidence of harm, particularly concerning its ability to damage DNA and affect the microorganisms in the gut. It’s hard to figure out how bad it is for humans, because it’s now in so many products for so long that the damage its causing may just be, like, background noise. But unlike acrylamide, which naturally forms whenever we bake, grill, or broil things (which is why blackened toast MAY worse for you than lightly toasted toast) titanium dioxide is pretty easy to avoid if we want to. It’s a mineral pigment, for gods’ sake, we don’t HAVE to eat it. Companies just put it in their food to make us WANT to eat their food more.

Like the other chemicals in California’s proposed new bill, titanium dioxide is only in our foods because the FDA allowed the burden of proof to be placed on themselves and on the consumers to prove these things are unsafe, rather than on the corporations to prove they’re safe. People aren’t downing bags of Skittles and dropping dead, so until we have more evidence that they’re harmful, we let Skittles keep selling them to us.

But harm doesn’t need to look like dying of an immediate Skittles overdose. It’s true that titanium dioxide probably isn’t going to kill you in the amount found in a bag of Skittles, but what if it’s in EVERYTHING? What if it’s in everything your toddler eats? What if the people with the lowest body mass (children) are most easily drawn to brightly colored products that are best achieved using titanium dioxide?

In fact, one of the other chemicals on the Assembly Bill 418 chopping block, erythrosine or red dye no. 3, is also used frequently in food targeting children like candy and popsicles. And in addition to the standard “linked to cancer in lab rats” studies, it’s one of the food dyes that might exacerbate hyperactivity in children with ADHD. Is that link fully established? No. But again, there’s ongoing research looking into it and in the meanwhile, do we really NEED our kids’ popsicles to be pink?

Another chemical in Bill 418 is potassium bromate, an ingredient found in some flours that has also been linked to cancer in rats and mice, and is actually already banned in the European Union, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Nigeria, South Korea, and Peru. The only reason it’s not banned in the US is because its use predates the FDA amendment that prohibits carcinogenic food additives, meaning it is “generally recognized as safe” until overwhelming evidence and pressure forces the FDA to change their stance. But hey, at least in 1991 the FDA asked bakers to please stop using potassium bromate voluntarily. And thanks to other countries banning it, many companies have stopped using it entirely.

Again: is the danger crystal clear? No. But is there enough evidence for concern that we stop using an ingredient that we didn’t really need to be consuming anyway? I think so, yeah.

While I don’t like the way predatory lawsuits have turned proposition 65 into a useless joke, I DO think that the original intent was good: place the burden on large corporations to prove that the ingredients they’re using, and the manufacturing processes they employ, are safe for consumers. If you want your pink Skittles to be pinker, prove to me that it’s not going to damage anyone, especially the little kids that are also going to be gnawing on pinker teething rings and drinking pinker strawberry milk and pinker fruit juice, and eating pinker pistachios, and yes, even pinker fruit like cherries, which are often dyed to look more appealing to the average grocery store shopper.

It would be great if these companies would just CHOOSE to do the research, but that is something that can only cost them money. Mars Incorporated didn’t become a $45 billion mega-corp by spending money on studies designed to detect if their own products are harmful. So fine, let’s ban any nonessential additives that might be harmful to people, until the companies using them can prove that they’re safe with solid, unbiased scientific evidence. I assure you that this won’t lead to Californians needing to cross the border to get Skittles; instead, it just means that Skittles will change their recipe and humanity will go on just fine, possibly with a few less toxins in our lives.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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