California Bans Harmful Food Additive That’s Still in Most Bread Sold in The U.S.

By: Chris Gorrie | Published: Feb 13, 2024

In a historic move, California, in October 2023, became the first state in the United States to prohibit four dangerous food additives—bromated vegetable oil, red dye 3, propylparaben, and the particularly concerning potassium bromate.

Governor Gavin Newsom, as reported by CBS News, assured Californians that they could still enjoy their favorite foods with enhanced confidence in their safety. The ban, effective from 2027, allows companies ample time to adjust their formulations.

These Additives Were in American Foods for Years

While many countries globally have banned these additives, they remain prevalent in various American food products, ranging from candies and cookies to fruit juice and bread.


Potassium bromate, a common additive in American bread, serves to strengthen dough, according to the New York Post. Unfortunately, it has been banned in Europe, India, and China due to its classification as a “suspected carcinogen.”

Expert Warnings and CBS News Interview

Concerns about potassium bromate gained prominence in February 2023 when Erik Millstone, a food additives expert from the University of Sussex, shared insights on CBS News’ Evening News with Norah O’Donnell.

Norah O’Donnell from CBS News wearing an orange blazer and smiling at the viewer.

NIH MedLine/Wikimedia Commons

Millstone emphasized that potassium bromate in American bread was “almost certainly” causing harm, citing evidence of its toxic effects and potential to initiate or promote tumor development.

We’ve Known That Potassium Bromate Causes Cancer

The international community has been aware since the 1980s, particularly by the early 1990s, of potassium bromate’s potential link to thyroid and kidney cancer in rats.

Two rats walking around on a white surface.

Jason Snyder/Wikimedia Commons

Notably, some countries, including those mentioned earlier, took proactive measures to ban the additive.

The Japanese Potassium Bromate Study and International Bans

In 1990, a pivotal study by Japanese scientists published in Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that potassium bromate should be considered a renal carcinogen based on its impact on the human body.

Scientists in a laboratory. A woman is looking through a microscope.

Rhoda Baer/Wikimedia Commons

The study highlighted the carcinogenic and nephrotoxic effects of flour treated with potassium bromate, inducing renal cell tumors, mesotheliomas of the peritoneum, and follicular cell tumors of the thyroid. This research led the International Agency for Research on Cancer to categorize potassium bromate as a category 2B carcinogen.

The United States Has Not Banned Potassium Bromate

Despite these findings, the United States has not banned potassium bromate.

The outside of the US Food and Drug Administration office in New York.

CaptJayRuffins/Wikimedia Commons

CBS News sought answers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which stated that all food additives undergo pre-market evaluation and must demonstrate safety at intended levels before approval. Post-approval, continuous safety reviews are conducted based on new information.


Challenges in the U.S. Regulatory System

Critics argue that the system for ensuring the safety of food ingredients in the U.S. is flawed. Lisa Lefflerts, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, described the system as “broken.”

The outside of the US Food and Drug Administration office in New York.

CaptJayRuffins/Wikimedia Commons

She played a role in petitioning the FDA to ban potassium bromate, a petition that was rejected due to “other agency priorities,” according to The Guardian.


California Is Leading the Charge

Notably, potassium bromate remains legal in most of the United States, along with other risky chemicals banned in Europe, such as titanium dioxide, brominated vegetable oil, and propylparaben.

California State Capitol photographed in daytime.

Andre m/Wikimedia Commons

However, California’s decisive action signals a shift towards prioritizing public health over industry interests, starting from 2027.


Environmental Working Group Applauds California's Initiative

Environmental Working Group (EWG) President Ken Cook commended California for its landmark decision to ban potassium bromate and three other additives, labeling it a “milestone in food safety.”

Gavin Newsom wearing a suit and speaking at a podium.

Office of the Governor of California/Wikimedia Commons

He praised Governor Newsom for prioritizing the health of Californians over industry interests. This move sets a precedent for other states to reevaluate and strengthen their food safety regulations, ensuring the well-being of consumers across the nation.


The Danger of Brominated Vegetable Oil

Brominated vegetable oil serves as an emulsifier in sports drinks and sodas, aiding in blending liquids that typically resist easy amalgamation, such as oil and water. 

Brominated Vegetable Oil sitting in a plastic cup.

Famartin/Wikimedia Commons

According to the FDA, it plays a crucial role in preventing the separation and floating of citrus flavorings to the beverage’s surface. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) database reveals its presence in around 70 vibrantly colored and citrus-flavored sodas and beverages. Brominated vegetable oil has been linked to metabolic issues.


The Danger of Propylparaben

Propylparaben, functioning as a preservative, extends the shelf life of packaged foods by inhibiting the growth of mold and bacteria.

A 3D rendering of a Propylparaben molecule.

MarinaVladivostok/Wikimedia Commons

EWG’s data identifies its inclusion in over 50 grocery store products, including packaged corn tortillas, baked desserts, and cake icing. Propylparaben has been linked to hormonal and reproductive issues.


The Danger of Red Dye No. 3

Red Dye No. 3, alternatively known as FD&C Red No. 3, red dye 3, and erythrosine, serves as a food coloring agent imparting a vivid cherry-red hue to numerous food items lining the shelves. 

A close-up image of red sour straw candies in a pile.

Startaq/Wikimedia Commons

This includes candies, baked goods, snacks, cereals, and sodas. Red Dye No. 3 is associated with increased risk of cancer and has been banned in Europe.