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Illinois bill seeks to ban food additives linked to health issues

Vanilla yogurt covered raisins, almonds, Nesquik and pink frosted cookies are displayed on a table.
Stephanie Zimmerman
Chicago Sun-Times
Examples of products containing red dye No. 3 or titanium dioxide, two of the five ingredients that would be banned for use in foods and beverages under new legislation proposed in Illinois.

The five additives, including red dye No. 3, would be banned from retail sales of foods and beverages in Illinois by 2027.

Five potentially harmful ingredients commonly found in food and drinks would be banned from retail sales in Illinois under proposed legislation that goes further than California’s first-in-the-nation ban on additives.

Senate Bill 2637, introduced by state Sen. Willie Preston, D-Chicago, and backed by Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, would ban brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propylparaben and red dye No. 3 — four additives that California outlawed in October.

Preston said he’ll amend the bill, which was filed in November, to also ban titanium dioxide from foods and beverages.

State Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Naperville, is backing the measure in the Illinois House.

California having passed its law first “will definitely make it an easier road for us here in Illinois,” Stava-Murray said.

The additives have been implicated in a host of potential poor health outcomes.

Red dye No. 3, used to color candies and other foods, has been banned in cosmetics since 1990 after evidence showed it caused cancer in lab animals. It’s also been linked to behavioral problems in some children.

Brominated vegetable oil, used as an emulsifier, has been linked to metabolic disorders, and potassium bromate, a dough conditioner, has been linked to cancer in lab animals.

Propylparaben, used as a preservative in some baked goods, has been implicated in potential hormonal and reproductive health issues.

While titanium dioxide, used to make white coloring in candy and other items, has been deemed safe for use in sunscreen, it has raised concern because nanoparticles have been found to accumulate in the organs of lab animals that ingested it.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group and some organ and tissue transplant advocates are backing the Illinois legislation.

All five additives have been banned by the European Union, and the four banned by California have been banned or restricted by several other countries.

California’s law gives manufacturers, distributors and retailers until 2027 to comply — a long lead time that allows companies to tweak their recipes.

The Illinois measure also would take effect in 2027, but it would exempt manufacturers and instead focus on retail sales.

Giannoulias, a father of three, said it’s “enormously important” for children to steer clear of harmful chemicals in food and beverages. He says he took an interest in the legislation as the official in charge of Illinois’ organ donation registry.

Giannoulias is also calling for research at an Illinois-based university or institution into two other additives, butylated hydroxyanisole, known as BHA, and butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT, which are used as preservatives but have raised concerns as possible human carcinogens.

The International Food Additives Council, an industry group, said it follows the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines, which deem all five of the additives as “generally recognized as safe.”

The council said that additives can enhance freshness, taste, texture and appearance and can help keep food safe and stable for longer periods of time.

But backers of the legislation are hoping now that food companies must reformulate their products to comply with California’s law, there will be less resistance in Illinois.

“This is not us banning food,” Giannoulias said. “It’s just saying, ‘Let’s use the safer ingredients.’”

Preston agreed: “This is not legislation aimed at getting rid of any of our favorite products.”

The freshman senator from Chicago and father of six said his eyes were opened on a trip to Israel, before the war in Gaza, when an Israeli mentioned to him that obesity is not as prevalent there as it is in the United States. The man offered a theory about Israelis eating more wholesome food with fewer additives.

“I realized we have a moral obligation to rid ourselves of these food additives that are pretty clearly linked to these diseases,” Preston said.

Similar legislation is being proposed in New York, and Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said he expects other states to follow.

Some manufacturers have already started reformulating foods and beverages to remove the additives, like the maker of Peeps marshmallow candy. Peeps-maker Just Born said in October that only its pink and lavender Peeps would have red dye No. 3 this Easter, and after that it will be removed in all Peeps.

Faber said changes can be made without affecting taste, and in some cases the safer additives are cheaper.

“People shouldn’t have to worry about whether there are toxic chemicals in their food. And guess what? They don’t need to be,” Faber said. “Companies change their recipes all the time.”

Stephanie Zimmermann is an award-winning investigative reporter who focuses on consumer issues, defined broadly to include credit and debt, insurance, food, housing, health, transportation, technology, unsafe products, scams/frauds and other issues that affect everyday people.
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