CPG Playbook   //   February 13, 2024

How food brands are future proofing products in preparation for California’s law banning additives like red dye No. 3

In October, California became the first U.S. state to ban several food additives from ingredient lists, including red dye No. 3, also called Erythrosine, which is used to give food and beverages a uniform rosy hue. 

It’s not just red dye that the law — called AB 418, and slated to go into effect in 2027 — is seeking to eliminate. The California law also bans Potassium Bromate, a flour additive that’s has been classified as being “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Other additives banned include Brominated Vegetable Oils, used to prevent separation of juice and can cause and Propylparaben.

Over the past few years advocacy and science groups have pushed legislators to follow in the footsteps of the European Union in eliminating artificial food additives like Erythrosine and BVO. But while red dye was removed from most cosmetics and externally-applied products back in the 1990s, it can still be found in everyday grocery items, from candy and soda to seemingly healthy foods like yogurt and juice. In light of the country’s largest state proposing to do away with synthetic dyes, medical professionals hope the FDA will act to ban these dyes and additives nationally. In light of more proposed laws prohibiting additives, food brands are getting ahead of the changes by planning for future product development that’s free of dyes and other synthetic additives.   

Maryclaire Manard, the CEO of Cluey Consumer, a resource for shoppers to learn about companies’ social and environmental policies, said she foresees an eventual large-scale phase out of harmful additives like red dye. However, it will take policymakers to force big food manufacturers to eliminate them for good. 

“The reality is that political candidates are taking money from corporations when fundraising,” Manard said. “So the incentives to protect consumers from these harmful ingredients are low.” 

Still, the California law is a major landmark for health advocates, Manard said. “Typically, these grassroot efforts originate from concerned mom groups, so it’s great to see a major state government taking it on,” she said. But a long-term move toward additives-free packaged foods means every brand has to already be reworking their formulations to be compliant with a potential nationwide law. Some progress has already taken place, with even big candy companies having already moved to eliminate red dye No. 3 from their products; Mars Inc.’s M&M’s and Skittles, for instance, no longer contain the dye.

At this point it’s become the norm for premium, better-for-you brands to create products free from preservatives, additives, colors and artificial flavors. But executing these products successfully can still require years of formula testing. 

Manard said young brands do have an advantage over established mainstream CPG products, and can invest in clean ingredient labels early on. “If someone was starting a CPG company today, making anything with any of these well known toxic ingredients wouldn’t be smart,” she said. 

As an example, baking decoration is one of the most popular categories to contain red dye, used to make products like sprinkles and frostings vibrant in color. Groups like the National Confectioners Association, for instance, have pushed back on the California ban by calling it “unscientific and unnecessary.” The group also said consumers will see increased cost of their favorite products should a widespread ban take place. 

On the better-for-you front, baking brand Supernatural has become known for formulating bright sprinkles free of red dye No. 3 and titanium dioxide. Since its launch in 2017, the startup’s product development strategy has focused on creating chemical-free baking products that are safe for families. It also pushed Supernatural to invest in moving all of manufacturing and distribution to the U.S. last year, when it transitioned to working with a New Jersey-based facility that’s able to make bright, dye-free dessert toppings.   

Another company developing products with dye bans in mind is snack brand Zack’s Mighty, which launched rolled tortilla chips – the brand’s take on bright-red Takis chips – last fall. 

Zack Gazzaniga, founder and CEO of Zack’s Mighty, said while creating the new SKU the company had to make strategic ingredient decisions in light of the legislation. As such, Zack’s rolled chips use natural beet powder for their amber color, instead of the red dye No. 40 (a darker version of red dye No. 3) currently found in Takis. This formulation also helps the product adhere to the strict label requirements of natural retailers like Whole Foods Market. 

The company’s original line of organic tortilla chips doesn’t have any coloring, so it’s not something Zach’s Mighty had to broach until the brand began developing the new rolled chips.

“When we got a taste we liked, we noticed that our chips were way lighter in color than other rolled chip items you see on the mass market,” Gazzaniga explained, with chips like Takis having a bright red color that leaves a trail of red dust on fingers. While that hue turned out to be impossible to replicate without red dye No. 40, Gazzaniga said “We ultimately landed on natural beet powder, as it’s relatively easy to source and provides the most vibrant natural red color based on our testing.”

In comparison with creating its original color-free chips, the rolled chips required more backend R&D on seasoning and packaging. “We certainly don’t have any interest in using dyes now or in the future,” Gazzaniga said. “So if a product comes up in the future that we think would benefit from a color, we will explore natural options like we did here with beet powder.”

Manard said the tide is slowly turning when it comes to the U.S.’ standards for food additives, and big food manufacturers do have ways to comply with these changing standards. 

“Many of these items are already formulated differently for certain regions,” Manard said. For instance, American companies have to meet label requirements in the European Union, where brands have to place warnings on foods containing synthetic dyes. “It’s just a matter of modifying their current recipes to comply with the new regulations.”