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Your Easter Peeps still use Red Dye No. 3 for now. Pennsylvania legislation wants to prohibit it.

Just Born — the Bethlehem candy company behind the springtime favorite — said it will stop using Red Dye No. 3 to make its pink and lavender-hued Peeps. AP Photo/Haven Daley
Just Born — the Bethlehem candy company behind the springtime favorite — said it will stop using Red Dye No. 3 to make its pink and lavender-hued Peeps. AP Photo/Haven Daley
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Your Easter 2024 Peeps marshmallow chicks and bunnies are about to become a relic.

After this Easter season, Just Born — the Bethlehem candy company behind the springtime favorite — said it will stop using Red Dye No. 3 to make its pink and lavender-hued Peeps.

The announcement, which came last fall, followed a California ban on the controversial food colorant that is set to take place in 2027. But California isn’t the only state cracking down on Red Dye No. 3.

New bipartisan legislation introduced in Pennsylvania in March is also seeking to ban the use of Red Dye No. 3 — among other additives — statewide.

Here’s what you should know.

What’s up with Red Dye No. 3?

Red Dye No. 3 is a synthetic colorant made from petroleum that’s been used to dye food, drugs and cosmetics bright red since the early 1900s.

It’s considered carcinogenic by the FDA and higher doses of it were found to cause cancer in animals, according to Consumer Reports.

For those reasons, the dye’s use was banned from being used in cosmetics more than 30 years ago. But it remains largely approved for use in the food world.

If it’s banned from cosmetics, why is Red Dye No. 3 still used in food?

It has to do with politics.

When the dye was first approved for food use in 1907, little research existed on its effects, Bon Appetit reported. Once studies started suggesting a bleaker reality — including that it can cause cancer in rats — the FDA banned the use of Red Dye No. 3 in cosmetics and externally applied drugs, like ointments and lotions, in 1990.

But Thomas Galligan, a food additives principal scientist for the watchdog group the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Bon Appetit the FDA’s delay to apply a similar ban to foods is a “classic case of bureaucracy getting in its own way.”

In 1989, heavy lobbying from the maraschino cherry industry and legislators from other fruit-growing districts convinced the House Appropriations Committee at the time to include language instructing the FDA not to ban the dye without further safety studies in a bill related to funding the FDA.

In 2022, the Center for Science in Public Interest petitioned the FDA to prohibit the colorant from food and drugs.

It’s worth noting that Red Dye No. 3 has already been banned for nearly all food uses in the European Union since the early 1990s and is also banned in Japan, China, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

What are the risks of consuming Red Dye No. 3?

According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, behavioral issues — particularly within children — could be a concern associated with consuming Red Dye No. 3.

Some studies have found a connection between artificial color additives and hyperactivity, increased inattentiveness, and restlessness in some children.

The color and dye industry refutes those claims. International Association of Color Manufacturers said in a 2021 statement that the conclusions were based off “insufficient scientific evidence.”

Which foods contain Red Dye No. 3?

According to the Environmental Working Group’s database, designed to give users information about potential health risks associated with different consumer goods, more than 3,200 products sold in the United States have Red 3.

The dye is in lots of artificially flavored or colored candies, including Valentine’s Day candy hearts, peppermints, candy corn and some gumdrops. It’s often found in drinks with strawberry flavors — like Nesquik and Pediasure.

According to Consumer Reports, it’s also found in unexpected items, like Vigo saffron rice, Wise onion rings and Morningstar Farms’ vegetarian bacon. Medications and supplements, like cough syrup and gummy vitamins, also contain it sometimes.

And, like we mentioned earlier, it’s in a couple of Peeps chicks and bunnies. Consumer Reports said it collected 30,000 petition signatures imploring Just Born to stop using the dye in its Peeps.

Which Peeps still use Red Dye No. 3 and when will they stop?

Just Born told Consumer Reports only two Peeps colors contain Red Dye No. 3 this Easter season — pink and lavender, adding that use of the dye adheres to FDA regulations.

Still, the company announced in October it was phasing out the use of the dye ahead of California’s 2027 ban on Red Dye No. 3 taking effect.

According to Just Born, the original yellow-colored chick remains Peeps’ best-selling product, but the other colored hues remain popular.

In a statement, Just Born said its product development team is “continually exploring opportunities to provide expanded options for our consumers, including colors derived from natural sources that can deliver the same visual impact and stability as their certified counterparts.”

Tell me about the California ban?

Last October, California became the first state to ban Red Dye No. 3 from food products. The ban will take effect beginning in 2027.

As noted by Bon Appetit, the state by itself has serious buying power and the likelihood of companies separating manufacturing into California-”friendly” and “nonfriendly” forms is low — meaning the state law could force nationwide compliance in some cases, like we’re seeing with Peeps.

Additionally, a string of other states — including New York, Washington, Illinois and Pennsylvania — have introduced bills seeking to ban Red Dye No. 3.

What’s going on in Pennsylvania with Red Dye No. 3?

In March, Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny/Washington, followed through with a campaign promise seeking to ban Red Dye No. 3 in the state.

Together with Rep. Melissa Shusterman, D-Chester, the bipartisan legislation package aims to prohibit the use of Red Dye No. 3, Red Dye No. 40, Yellow Dye No. 5, Yellow Dye No. 6, Blue Dye No. 1 and Blue Dye No. 2.

While Red Dye No. 3 is among the most contentious, some experts say most or all artificial food colorants can be linked to negative health effects in children.

”The list of health issues related to poisons like Red Dye No. 3 are well documented to increase hyperactivity in children and jeopardize brain development,” Mihalek said. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration went as far as to prohibit them from use in cosmetics more than 30 years ago, but we can’t wait any longer for the feds to ban them from our food supply.”

She added, “This is not a political issue, it’s a matter of public safety.”

Shusterman said Pennsylvanians should be able to “trust that the food at the grocery store is safe.”

“Worrying about health risks contained in the additives in foods, and scouring the fine print of labels, should not be something consumers have to add to their grocery lists,” she said. “I hope these food safety bills will be ones that legislators can come together in a bipartisan manner to support.”

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