Frightening food: The scary additives lurking in Halloween candy

Frightening food: The scary additives lurking in Halloween candy

Halloween is almost here, when children will dress up as vampires, ghosts, zombies and other scary creatures while they trick-or-treat.

But the most frightening thing about this season isn’t the costumes, but the harmful additives in popular candy. Whether buying sweets to hand out, or just to eat at home, parents must choose between name-brand treats their kids love and healthier but possibly less-exciting snacks.

You might find the choice easier after learning about the risks of certain food additives – and check out our suggestions for safer Halloween treats.

Four of the most common additives in well-known types of candy are titanium dioxide, tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT and synthetic dyes like Red No. 3. This ghoulish group has repeatedly been linked to a wide range of potential health harms.

Titanium dioxide gives some types of candy their smooth texture and bright color. It’s used in Skittles, Starburst, Sour Patch Kids, Swedish Fish and Trolli gummies.

Scientists have warned for years about the potential health risks of titanium dioxide because it can accumulate in the body and lead to DNA damage and hormone disruption. Last year, the European Food Safety Authority assessed the additive as being unsafe for consumption.

Earlier this year, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Mars, the maker of Skittles, Starburst and many other candies that use titanium dioxide, saying the company had “long known of the health problems” to which the food chemical can contribute.

TBHQ is a food preservative that prolongs the shelf life of candies and snacks such as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Pop-Tarts, Cheez-Its and more than a thousand other processed foods. TBHQ can harm the immune system, according to an EWG study published this year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Other studies have shown how the additive can impair flu vaccine efficacy and raise the risk of food allergies. The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of TBHQ years ago and has not reevaluated it in light of new science that raises questions about its safety.

BHT, used in Rice Krispies Treats and Charms Blow Pops, has been listed by the FDA as generally recognized as safe. But some studies have shown it can cause cancer in animals and may act as an endocrine disruptor.

Red No. 3 and other synthetic food dyes like Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 5, are used in many candies, including Brach’s Candy Corn, to make them bright and colorful. Red No. 3 alone can be found in over 2,000 products in EWG’s Food Scores database.

Synthetic dyes have been linked to a wide array of health harms, including cancer and behavioral difficulties in sensitive children. 

Discovering the widespread use of these harmful food additives in candy can feel overwhelming. But there are steps you can take to help your children avoid them.

Checking the ingredients labels for the presence of these additives may be the best way to make sure they don’t make their way into your home.

It's also helpful to avoid ultra-processed foods, which often have high levels of chemical additives and preservatives. Our Food Scores database and Healthy Living App can make it easier to shop for healthier alternatives.

And check out EWG’s list of Halloween treat alternatives kids enjoy – snacks that are organic and non-GMO, made with natural flavors and colors, with fairly low amounts of sugar, and without allergens.

You can also help build pressure on the FDA to evaluate the safety of common additives like titanium dioxide, TBHQ, BHT and synthetic dyes and ban them when necessary.

The FDA must also close the loophole that allows harmful additives in food. This would help ensure that no new additives could be included without the agency’s review. By sending a tweet with the hashtag #ToxicFreeFoodFDA and calling for an end to the loophole, you can help EWG in urging FDA to heed this call.

For more information about these chemicals, check out EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Chemicals and our Food Additives State of the Science.

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