Red dye No. 3 — found in gummies, ice cream cones, frostings, toaster pastries and more — is under fire in California, where lawmakers have passed a first-of-its-kind bill banning the sale of food and drinks containing the synthetic food coloring, along with three other potentially harmful chemicals (potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil and propylparaben) frequently found in processed foods. If signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, items like fruit cups, chewy candies, Skittles and Peeps would no longer be able to be sold in the state. It would also be the first time that a state has banned food additives permitted by the Food and Drug Administration.
The California Food Safety Act is being applauded by some parents who say red food dye No. 3 has already been banned from their own households. One is father of three Matt Parks, who tells Yahoo Life that he and his wife try to do their best to keep their children from having red dye No. 3. "We very strictly limit the amount of red dye that our kids have," he says, noting that they're especially cautious with their younger daughter.
"We have noticed that when she has red food dye, her ability to regulate emotions becomes impaired," he says. "She's very easily agitated and upset — far more than normal. It's gotten to the point where even she notices the change." Parks says he has ADHD and notices that, when he has products with red dye No. 3, he feels more irritable and agitated. "It's not a cause of those symptoms, but it does seem to be a trigger," he says.
Father of two AJ Yarwood also says his family tries to avoid red dye No. 3. "When our children consume products containing red dye No. 3, they tend to become more hyperactive and have difficulty focusing," he tells Yahoo Life. "This can be especially challenging for our daughter, who already struggles with attention issues."
Yarwood says his family has come up with a list of common products with the dye to avoid, noting that the list keeps growing. "It's frustrating to know that this dye is banned from cosmetics due to its harmful effects, yet it's still used in everyday foods for everyone to ingest," he says.
Carrie Conrad, a mother of three, says her kids may have red food dye one or two times a year at birthday parties, noting that "every time we do, we regret it." Conrad said her children most recently had the dye in pink cotton candy at a Renaissance festival, and it didn't end well. "My kids lose control over themselves," she says. "There's screaming, running, rebelling. The kids are unable to connect or register any safety rules. It's pure chaos."
It's important to note that the claims about red dye No. 3 aren't just anecdotal. The chemical has been linked to behavioral issues in kids.
Jamie Alan, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life that studies on red dye No. 3 are limited and only show an association — not that red dye No. 3 actually causes certain health issues or behaviors. But Alan says it's important to consider this: "Red dye offers no nutritional or positive impacts on health. There is only potential harm, although the jury is out on the amount of type of harm it may or may not cause."
Alan adds: "From a health standpoint, I can see benefits" to banning the dye in foods.
Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that he "loves" the idea of banning red food dye. "Parents are realizing that these food labels are getting longer, and they have a right to know what effect these foods may have on their children," he says.
Ganjian also acknowledges that data on red dye No. 3 is limited but points out that the data surrounding this ingredient is unlikely to become more robust. "It's not ethical to get kids and expose them to red dye for the science of it when animal studies show it could harm them," he says.
Ganjian says he's seen kids act out after having candies with red dye No. 3. "It's not just the sugar," he says. "It's just better not to have this ingredient."
If signed into law, the California Food Safety Act would ban red dye No. 3, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil and propylparaben from the manufacturing, distribution or sale of foods in California, effective from 2027. Though early drafts sought to include titanium dioxide, which is typically used as a food colorant, in the list of banned substances, it does not appear in the final approved version.
What can parents do now? If you're able to, Alan recommends doing your best to avoid red dye No. 3, either by choosing dye-free foods or ones that use more natural coloring, such as beet extract. "I am concerned about parents who cannot easily access foods that are dye-free," she says. "If your only options for food are foods that contain dye, then by all means feed your children."
This article was originally published on April 5, 2023 and has been updated.