Super Bowl ads: Showcasing snacks and makeup with toxic chemicals

Whether your taste runs to salty or sweet, you probably ate your share of snacks while you watched this year’s Super Bowl – some with potentially harmful ingredients.

The big game is popular with advertisers trying to tempt you into buying their foods, spending enormous sums on spots each year. Some of the products advertised this year score poorly in Food Scores, the EWG database that scores packaged foods on nutrition, ingredient and processing concerns.

Many of the foods touted in this year’s Super Bowl ads can be classified as ultra-processed – industrially produced packaged products made with ingredients unavailable in home kitchens. High in refined carbohydrates and fats, loaded with food additives, they’re typically less nutritious and higher in calories than less-processed foods. The Super Bowl may be a time when you want to indulge a little – just bear in mind what you’re consuming.

Ultra-processed food often includes toxic chemicals, such as artificial flavors and colorants. Or, like Super Bowl advertiser Popeye’s, the food is packed with fat, sodium and calories

It’s important to know the score where food chemicals are involved. Here are some of the products and brands with ads in this year’s Super Bowl:

Mountain Dew

Three types of Mountain Dew soda are among the 20 products in Food Scores with the most page views. 

One in particular, a teal drink called Baja Blast, was featured in the company’s Super Bowl ad. It contains the mystery chemical mixture known as “flavor.” 

Natural and artificial flavors are chemically manipulated concoctions designed to make foods more palatable to the consumer, but companies aren’t required to specify which of thousands of flavors the food product contains. The Food and Drug Administration considers 700 to be safe, but industry groups approved another 2,000 without the FDA’s review. 

Baja Blast also contains the food dyes Blue No. 1 and Yellow No. 5. Some artificial food colors can cause behavioral problems in children, leading to attention and behavior problems. They can also harm the hormone system and cause damage to DNA. Blue No. 1 has been connected to headache, digestive problems, skin irritation, and cancer. Yellow No. 1 has been associated with skin irritation, allergies and asthma.

The artificial sweetener sucralose is in the zero-sugar version of Baja Blast. Recent research suggests there may be a link between higher consumption of sucralose and higher risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Candy

It’s not a big surprise that iconic M&Ms get their color from food chemicals – Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6 and Red No. 40. M&Ms also contain “flavor.”

Nerds made its Super Bowl debut this year. This candy is also the most-searched product in EWG’s Food Scores database. They’re hardly a nutritional touchdown, though: Bomb Pop Nerds contain the artificial colors Blue No. 1, Yellow No. 5, Red No. 40 and Red No. 3. 

The Reese’s candy featured in its ad may be one of its safer choices. Others aren’t as healthy. In their snack-size version, Reese’s classic peanut butter cups contain the ingredient tert-butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, a preservative that can harm the immune system and weaken vaccine effectiveness. It’s also in Reese’s Marshmallow Creme with Milk Chocolate. 

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Whipped Topping is made with Yellow No. 5 and the propellant nitrous oxide, better known as “laughing gas.” When abused, it can harm the nervous system and lead to other health issues. 

Doritos

Frito Lay touted its Doritos Dinamita chips during the big game, all of which rate 6 or higher on Food Scores – the “worst” end of our ratings. The color in at least one type of these chips comes from four colorants, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6, Red No. 40 and Blue No. 1. They also contain the flavor enhancer MSG and the artificial sweetener sucralose.

Makeup

Two makeup brands bought Super Bowl ads – including NYX Professional Makeup, which scores a 1, the least hazardous rating, in EWG’s Skin Deep® database of personal care products. 

But its other products score 5 or higher – from hazardous to very hazardous – with ingredients such as citrus lemon peel oil, linked to skin, eye and lung irritation and the colorant Blue No. 1, linked to hormone disruption and cancer. BHT, associated with allergies, endocrine disruption and cancer, is in some of the products, and others contain talc, which is associated with cancer.

More than one product from another brand, e.l.f., contains the toxic PFAS “forever chemicalPTFE, better known as Teflon, in addition to artificial colorants. 

Rounding out the advertiser lineup are a couple of fast food companies – watch out for PFAS in their packaging – and food delivery companies.

The government should step up

Consumers – and Super Bowl viewers – are free to enjoy their snacks, and they do. Food Scores searches show they’re also concerned about what’s in those foods. Sometimes those concerns build pressure for companies to reformulate their products, but these efforts often fail.

How expensive is reformulation? Companies often claim the price is prohibitive. But the ads were $7 million – not exactly chump change. 

Facing inaction from many food companies, we need tougher national laws to protect us from harmful ingredients. 

In the meantime, some states are stepping into the gap. Last year, California passed into law a bill banning four harmful food chemicals, including Red No. 3. Illinois, Missouri, New York, South Dakota Washington have just introduced legislation banning four additives. In Illinois, the similar bill may get amended to add one more. Other states may soon follow suit.

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

What you can do

Consumers increasingly are searching for quick healthy snack options. There are plenty of great options, many of them in Food Scores.

Whether you’re watching a big game or just following your day-to-day schedule, it’s best to:

  • Eat whole foods like beans and legumes, whole grains and fresh produce. 
  • Make ultra-processed foods more of an occasional indulgence than a regular standby.
  • Consult Food Scores to find out more about packaged food ingredients. 
  • When brainstorming possible snacks, swap ultra-processed snack foods for healthier options, like fresh fruit and vegetables with hummus, nuts, popcorn made from scratch, deviled eggs, roasted chickpeas or air-fried sweet potato fries.  
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