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There's renewed pressure on the FDA to ban synthetic food dye Red No. 3

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There's new pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to take action on the synthetic food dye known as Red No. 3. Last week, California became the first state to ban it. And as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, public health advocates want the dye removed from the food supply nationwide.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The concern about Red No. 3 goes back decades. In 1990, the FDA restricted the use of it in cosmetics based on a study that it can cause cancer in rats. And since then, multiple studies have linked consumption of food dyes to behavioral issues in kids, such as being hyperactive. Dr. Peter Lurie of the Center for Science in the Public Interest supports banning it from the food supply.

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PETER LURIE: I think the passage of the bill in California creates undeniable pressure on FDA. We have filed a petition with FDA to get Red 3 banned, and we think that this will just make it more likely that they grant our petition.

AUBREY: Synthetic food dyes give bright, flashy coloring to foods, making them more appealing to the eye. Red 3 is found in candies such as the popular Halloween treat candy corn. And Christopher Gindlesperger of the National Confectioners Association says Red 3 is used in many foods since the FDA has long allowed it.

CHRISTOPHER GINDLESPERGER: It's kind of ubiquitous throughout the food system. Of course, the vibrant colors of candy are important to our industry and to our business, but there are other products, too - beverages, yogurts, frozen foods.

AUBREY: And the continued use of it, Gindlesperger says, should be determined by federal regulators at the FDA, not the state of California. Otherwise, he says, California's ban, slated to take effect in 2027, would lead to a confusing patchwork of rules.

GINDLESPERGER: I think it's FDA's call, and it's time for the FDA to lean into the discussion, have a solid review, evaluate all of the available science, conduct their own research and provide the guidance that the food companies in this country need.

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AUBREY: When California's EPA reviewed the existing studies, they found reason to believe that synthetic dyes could negatively impact children's behavior. Professor Asa Bradman of University of California, Merced, helped with the analysis. He found low-income children had higher exposures to the synthetic dyes.

ASA BRADMAN: There's about 25 studies, and of those, about 16 suggested a positive association between artificial food coloring intake and behavioral outcomes.

AUBREY: For instance, in one double-blinded study that included kids aged 3 to 9 years old, researchers compared what happened when they consumed drinks that contained synthetic dyes compared to dye-free drinks. They found artificial colors in the diet resulted in increased hyperactivity. And Mark Miller, a scientist with California's EPA, says animal studies suggest synthetic colors can alter learning and memory.

MARK MILLER: I think the evidence is compelling that children's consumption of synthetic food dyes can contribute to increases in symptoms like inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity in some children.

AUBREY: An FDA spokesperson says the agency is actively reviewing the petition on Red 3 and will assess whether there's sufficient evidence to revoke its use. Some manufacturers have removed Red 3 from their products. M&Ms and Skittles do not contain the dye.

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Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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Allison Aubrey
Allison Aubrey is a Washington-based correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She has reported extensively on the coronavirus pandemic since it began, providing near-daily coverage of new developments and effects. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.