Something to scream about: Harmful chemicals in ice cream and popsicles

  • Many types of ice cream and popsicles contain Red No. 3 and titanium dioxide – two food chemicals associated with serious health harms.

  • Red No. 3 and titanium dioxide are both banned from nearly all uses in food in the European Union but remain legal in the U.S.

Summer is fast approaching, and this time of year no duo is more iconic than hot, sunny weather and frozen, creamy desserts or tart, icy popsicles. 

But many people don’t realize that a sugar rush or a brain freeze isn't the only thing to watch for with these cold confections – they might also contain potentially harmful food chemicals.

Get Your Free Guide: EWG's Guide to Food Additives

Food chemicals in ice cream and popsicles

Titanium dioxide

Titanium dioxide is a colorant used to create a smooth finish and add shine and brightness to other colors. It’s frequently found in candies and other sweets, including ice cream and popsicles.

Titanium dioxide is used in cold treats from brands including Bomb Pop Middles Strawberry, Ahold Ice Pops, Great Value Rocky Road Ice Cream and Milk Bar Cereal Milk Ice Cream

Because it can be toxic, European food safety regulators have labeled titanium dioxide no longer safe for human consumption. A 2021 assessment by the European Food Safety Authority concluded that the very tiny size of titanium dioxide molecules in the form of nanoparticles can build up in the body and cause chromosomal damage.

Red No. 3

This chemical is a synthetic food dye added to processed foods to make them look more colorful and appealing.

It’s used in over 2,000 products, including Mccoll’s Bubble Gum Ice Cream, Market Pantry Cotton Candy Ice Cream and Kroger Deluxe Churned Neapolitan Light Ice Cream.

According to a 2021 health effects assessment by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Red No. 3 can make children vulnerable to behavioral difficulties, including decreased attention.

In 1990 the Food and Drug Administration found Red No. 3 can cause cancer and banned its use in cosmetics and externally applied drugs. But it’s still allowed for use in food because of the FDA’s lack of action – even though the agency has concluded the dye causes cancer in animals.

The need for legislation

We’re still waiting for any federal action to ban either of these harmful chemicals from food, so states are beginning to fill the regulatory gap.

Earlier this year, the California Food Safety Act was passed into law. It bans the manufacture, sale and distribution in the state of foods containing potassium bromate, as well as propyl paraben, Red Dye No. 3 and brominated vegetable oil, whose authorization the Food and Drug Administration just proposed to revoke.

A similar bill banning the same food chemicals has been introduced in the New York Senate and is working its way through committee.

What you can do

While we await regulatory action, here are some ways you and your family can avoid titanium dioxide and Red No. 3 in your ice cream and popsicles:

  • Look at the label. Check ingredient labels for Red 3, titanium dioxide, “artificial color,” or “color added” to avoid these chemicals of concern. In ice cream, manufacturers may choose whether to disclose Red 3 and titanium dioxide by name. 
  • Find alternatives. Use EWG’s Food Scores database to look for products that don’t contain these harmful chemicals.
  • Choose organic. Packaged foods that are certified organic must meet strong standards that protect consumers from exposure to potentially harmful food additives. Titanium dioxide and Red No. 3 are not allowed for use in organic foods.


Editorial note: This article was updated on Monday, November 20 with recent information on regulatory status.

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