California bill to ban food chemicals is a win for environmental justice

A bill before the California Senate that would ban five food chemicals isn’t just a matter of public health.

It’s also a matter of environmental justice: The food chemicals are most prevalent in highly processed foods, which are linked to a higher risk of chronic disease, experienced disproportionately by people of color.

Compared to higher-income and predominantly white neighborhoods, lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color are less likely to have access to foods made without these additives. 

Assembly Bill 418, would ban the manufacture, sale and distribution of foods containing brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propyl paraben, titanium dioxide and Red Dye No. 3. If passed, the ban would give all California residents access to food without these toxic chemicals.

Pioneering legislation

If the Senate approves the bill and Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it into law, it would be the first such ban on these five food chemicals in the country. The Assembly approved the bill in May, sending it to the Senate.

California often leads the rest of the U.S., passing more protective health and safety rules and regulations. Companies required to comply with Golden State standards will likely adhere to them with products sent to the rest of the country.

The five food chemicals are used in many types of packaged, processed and ultra-processed foods, like candy, cookies and pre-packaged foods – precisely the kinds of food that, compared to fresh foods, are more likely to be accessible in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Who is most exposed 

 The bill would help ease the burden of shopping to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals. 

Simply choosing healthier options isn’t a viable solution for everyone. Some neighborhoods have little or no access to more healthy food. For some people, the distance to reach more nutritious options and their higher price puts them out of reach.

So residents in these areas may have few alternatives to nutrition-poor food containing harmful chemicals.

Instead, what’s more likely to be more readily available at dollar stores and convenience marts is the low-quality, highly processed food containing chemicals like the five targeted in A.B. 418. Because of systemic racism and other inequities, these stores have long been disproportionately situated in and near low-income communities. Research shows that lower income corresponds to higher consumption of these foods.

A social justice issue

The social and environmental injustice of exposure to toxic food chemicals arose during the Assembly’s Health committee hearing on the bill in April. Assemblymember Dr. Akilah Weber (D-La Mesa) addressed the ability of some individuals to deal with the problem of toxic chemicals in food, saying:

As a mother, as a physician, as someone who comes from a community that has dealt with lots of inequities historically, [I] would rather make sure that we allow the same playing field for everyone, regardless of where they live, their ZIP code, whether they live in a food desert or have access to the most expensive, exclusive brands.

Communities of color and people with lower incomes disproportionately experience health problems such as obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes – chronic illnesses that studies have connected to consumption of highly processed foods that contain food additives.

The food chemicals A.B. 418 would ban have been linked to health problems, including cancer, endocrine disruption, and reproductive toxicity.

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

The need for stricter regulation

A state ban on these chemicals would give food safety access to everyone, not just those who can afford to travel to and buy from stores with healthier food.

It is essential to shift the conversation from individual choice to the real culprit, the companies that continue to make and sell food with ingredients science has shown are harmful to human health.

Much more needs to be done to ensure our food is free from toxic chemicals. But A.B. 418 is a good start. If it is passed into law, California will lead the way to create more equitable and healthier food options for everyone.

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