California could ban a toxic preservative lurking in pastries

Many people love a tasty treat like Casey’s Cinnamon Roll or First Street Sugar Cookies – but they might not know these pastries often have a toxic preservative baked in them. Now California lawmakers are weighing a bill that could ban the use of this chemical in processed foods.

The legislation, if passed and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would be a first-in-the-nation ban on the toxic preservative propyl paraben and four other chemicals in food, and apply to items sold in the state. Given the size of California’s economy, history shows that its pioneering health and environmental laws can drive positive change in the industries they target.

Propyl paraben has been linked to hormone disruption and harm to the reproductive system and may be especially harmful to children. EWG is supporting the bill, introduced by Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D-San Fernando Valley), as a vital step to protect people.

California’s potential action on this issue also shows the ongoing flaws in our federal food oversight, as the Food and Drug Administration still permits some harmful chemicals in many of the popular items we eat – even when the risks of these substances are well known.

A prominent, problematic preservative

According to EWG’s Food Scores Database, the preservative propyl paraben has been found in over 50 food products, from Goya Corn Tortillas to Publix Nut and Chocolatey Trail Mix. The database ranks foods based on ingredient, nutrition and processing concerns.

“Concern” is the right word for propyl paraben. The European Food Safety Authority issued an advisory in 2004 saying it could not be safely used in food, based on evidence that all doses of the chemical changed hormone levels and reduced sperm production in animals. The European Union in 2006 then removed the chemical from its list of authorized food additives.

Other researchers confirmed propyl paraben’s effects on the hormone system. It acts as an artificial estrogenic compound and can alter hormone signaling and gene expression. Exposure to propyl paraben might be associated with lower fertility, Harvard researchers have found.

Endocrine signaling is particularly important during critical windows of development, such as fetal, childhood and adolescence. Any chemical that disrupts endocrine signaling can harm development, reproduction and the nervous and immune systems.

Low doses of propyl paraben damaged the DNA in human breast cells and mice’s mammary cells in a 2020 study. A study from 2021 provided strong evidence that propyl paraben interferes with hormones and changed the structure and cells of mammary glands in pregnant and lactating mice. The effects were observed at doses much lower than humans usually consume. 

Propyl paraben exposure at levels in the FDA’s “human acceptable daily intake” limits changed gene expression and increased growth of mammary tumors in mice, a 2023 study found.

Get your free guide: EWG's Guide to Food Additives

Time for change

So how is this chemical still in our food, if we know these potential health hazards? Because the FDA has classified the chemical as generally recognizable as safe. This designation is the result of a loophole that allows chemical and food companies to certify that an ingredient is safe in food, despite continued evidence of its harm to humans and animals. 

The food industry as a whole has not dropped use of propyl paraben, although several companies, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Kroger, have taken steps to move away from using it. And restaurants like Chipotle and Panera don’t use it in their foods. 

Change has already happened in other industries, as propyl paraben began to be phased out of personal care products years ago, and many are now advertised as “paraben free.”

For example, in 2012 Johnson & Johnson under market pressure pledged to remove propyl paraben and other parabens from its baby products. Brands such as Alba, Origins and Burt’s Bees don’t use parabens at all. In 2015, the EU began to restrict the chemical from personal care products because of health harms.

Unless and until the FDA ends allowable uses of propyl paraben, there are some steps you can take when shopping for food to reduce your exposure to this chemical.

Choosing less processed food and fresh food ingredients is a great way to avoid harmful food chemicals. Selecting organic food is another option. In contrast to conventional packaged foods, organic packaged foods must be formulated in keeping with strong standards that protect consumers from the use of artificial food chemicals, including propyl paraben.

In the absence of a federal ban on propyl paraben, efforts like the proposed bill in California can help to fill the gap and keep harmful chemicals out of products we eat every day.

EWG 2023 communications intern Kathryn LaLonde contributed to this article.

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