Are you planning a Peeps show this Easter weekend? Well, you may want to look at the warning recently issued by Consumer Reports to all peeps, meaning people. They are reminding folks that purple and pink Peeps with a capital “P” have Red Dye Number 3 in them. And Red Dye No. 3 ain’t like Love Potion Number 9. Instead, it’s a known carcinogen, meaning that it can cause cancer, which, by the way, ain’t a good thing.
Expect to see lots of Peeps over the next several days, meaning, in this case, the marshmallow candies and not people. Peeps have become as synonymous with Easter as all those eggs-tra-curricular activities such as egg dying, egg rolling, and egg hunting. The most recognizable of these marshmallow products produced by Just Born Quality Confections are chick-shaped and bunny-shaped. But Peeps have become more than just a chick-flick and something bunny. Peeps now come in a whole array of shapes such as bears, hearts, pumpkins, ghosts, cats, gingerbread men, trees, reindeer, and snowmen.
The Consumer Reports warning doesn’t cover all Peeps or all Just Born products. It specifically mentions the following: Peeps Pink Marshmallow Chicks, Peeps Pink Marshmallow Bunnies, Peeps Lavender Marshmallow Chicks, Peeps Lavender Marshmallow Bunnies, Hot Tamales candy, Peeps Hot Tamales Marshmallow Chicks, Party Cake Peeps, Peeps Fruit Punch Marshmallow Chicks, and Peeps Wildberry Marshmallow Bunnies. These are basically products that are well-red, meaning products that have a color that’s some variation of red or a mixture of red.
This hasn’t been the first time Consumer Reports has said, what up, Peeps? On March 17, Consumer Reports sent a letter to David Shaffer and Mr. Gardner Jett, Jr., the co-CEOs of Just Born Quality Confections, the makers of Peeps. This wasn’t a friendly, “How you doin’,” type of letter. Rather, it began with, “We write to urge Just Born Quality Confections to remove Red Dye No. 3 from its candies, as it is a known carcinogen that has been banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in cosmetics since 1990. We further recommend that Just Born Quality Confections commit to a clear timetable for its removal.” The letter went on to say, “In late 2022, over 20 organizations, including Consumer Reports, submitted a petition to the FDA calling on the agency to prohibit Red Dye No. 3 in food, dietary supplements, and ingested drugs.”
Yes, you heard that correctly. For the past several decades, companies have not been allowed by the FDA to put Red Dye No. 3 in cosmetics, you know the stuff that you put on your face but not down your throat, assuming that you don’t munch on mascara. But—and this is a big but, one cannot lie—it’s still OK to put this carcinogenic dye in stuff that you intentionally put into your mouth like food, dietary supplements, and medications. And this includes things marketed for kids’ mouths such as Peeps. After all, let’s face it, the primary target market for Peeps probably ain’t people holding cocktails.
Red Dye No. 3 is still widely used in over 2,900 food products, according to the Environmental Working Group. This is despite the fact that the FDA essentially went, “Rats, this FD&C Red No. 3 could cause cancer,” way back in 1990. Indeed, by the end of the 1980’s enough scientific studies had shown that rats who were fed this dye over long periods of time developed adenomas and carcinomas of the thyroid. Note that these studies had fed the rats the dye and not asked the rats to put the dye on as make-up. The latter would have required the scientists to provide the rats with little mirrors.
So even though the rats had ingested the dye, the FDA chose to ban only the use of Red Dye 3 for substances placed on the skin but not substances that are supposed to go down your hatch. That makes about as much sense as a sleeveless sweater. The FDA does require that food manufacturers list Red Dye 3 on their food products’ labels when the dye is present. But it’s not clear how many consumers will be aware of the dye job since consumers don’t always read labels. And even if they do, how many are fully aware of what Red Dye 3 may do.
Consumer Reports is not simply allowing companies to live and let dye. In addition to the aforementioned petition delivered to the FDA on October 2022, they’re also co-sponsoring with the Environmental Working Group a bill in California that would ban Red Dye 3 from being put into food products. Their proposed ban would include four other oh-no substances as well: brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propyl paraben, and titanium dioxide.
According to Matt Cudahy reporting for WCVB5, Just Born Quality Confections has issued the following statement in response to the Consumer Reports warning: “FD&C Red #3 is currently an approved colorant for use in candy by the FDA. We manufacture all our candies in compliance with FDA regulations, sourcing our ingredients and packaging exclusively from reputable suppliers who adhere to high quality and safety standards.”
The statement continued with, “We also provide consumers with information on our packaging and our websites to help them make informed choices about our products.” They added, “Our product development team is continually exploring opportunities to provide expanded options for our consumers, including colors derived from natural sources that can deliver the same visual impact and stability as their certified counterparts.” So it looks like they may be exploring other ways to dye their hares. And chicks.
As long as companies continue to use Red Dye No. 3, it’s a good idea to be aware of what specifically is giving each of your food items its color. That’s a good idea throughout the year and not just during Easter when you are getting a Peeps offering.