Chocolates and heart-shaped pastilles with cutesy phrases like “QT Pie” are sweet. What isn’t sweet are the potentially harmful food chemicals that may be hiding in your Valentine’s Day candies.
This year, express affection for your valentine by giving treats without the health harms.
Food chemicals and contaminants to avoid
Red No. 3
Synthetic food dye Red No. 3 is added to candies and other processed foods to make them look more colorful and appealing.
It’s used in over 2,000 products on the market, including in special Valentine’s Day treats such as Brach’s Conversation Hearts and Corso’s Sugar Be My Valentine Cookies.
Like other synthetic dyes, Red No. 3 can make children vulnerable to behavioral difficulties, including decreased attention, according to a 2021 study by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Studies have also shown that very high doses of the dye can cause cancer. The Food and Drug Administration even found it can cause cancer and banned its use in cosmetics and externally applied drugs in 1990. But the dye is still allowed in food.
Last month, 24 organizations, including EWG, petitioned the FDA to ban Red No. 3 in food.
Titanium dioxide is added to candies like Skittles and Starburst to create a smooth finish and add shine and brightness to other colors. If you’re reading the labels in your local store’s candy aisle, you’ll likely find this additive in many of the confections.
Titanium dioxide can be found in Valentine’s Day products like Sour Patch Kids Message Hearts Valentine Candy, Brach’s Gummy Conversation Hearts and Meijer Red & White Valentine Gummi Bears.
European food safety regulators have labeled this chemical no longer safe for human consumption because of its potential toxicity. A 2021 assessment by the European Food Safety Authority concluded that the nanoparticle size of titanium dioxide can accumulate in the body and that it has the potential to break DNA strands and cause chromosomal damage. The European ban took effect in August 2022, but the additive is legal in the U.S.
What can I do to avoid these chemicals?
Artificial food dyes like Red No. 3 and titanium dioxide must be listed among the ingredients of packaged foods, so check labels to avoid products containing these chemicals of concern.
You can also choose packaged foods that are certified organic to avoid the potential health harms associated with artificial food dyes and titanium dioxide. They must meet strong standards that protect consumers from exposure to potentially harmful food additives.
It’s not only brightly colored, fruity candies that could harm you. Chocolate also has issues. Some people choose dark chocolate over other varieties because of its potential health benefits and lower sugar levels. But it may be contaminated with potentially harmful levels of lead and cadmium.
A recent study by Consumer Reports tested a mix of dark chocolate bars from different brands, including Mast, Ghirardelli, Lindt and Dove. It found that eating just a single ounce a day of one of the 23 bars tested would expose an adult to at least one of those metals over the level experts from Consumer Reports and public health authorities say may be harmful.
But you don’t have to swear off dark chocolate completely to avoid heavy metals.
What can I do to avoid high levels of heavy metals?
Consumer Reports did find relatively low levels of lead and cadmium in five of the chocolate bars it tested – Mast Organic Dark Chocolate 80% Cacao, Taza Chocolate Organic Deliciously Dark Chocolate 70% Cacao, Ghirardelli Intense Dark Chocolate 86% Cacao, Ghirardelli Intense Dark Chocolate Twilight Delight 72% Cacao and Valrhona Abinao Dark Chocolate 85% Cacao.
By choosing one of these options, you can still give your sweetheart rich, dark chocolate while avoiding potential health harms.