Tamil Nadu bans cotton candy: What is Rhodamine B, the cancer-causing chemical?

The ban was announced since a large number of cotton candy samples collected from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry were identified with Rhodamine B, a prohibited chemical that is dangerous to consume.
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Tamil Nadu and Puducherry recently announced the ban on the production and sale of cotton candy after being  declared ‘unsafe’ for consumption for containing cancer-causing chemicals. A recent review of the confectionery by the Government Food Analysis Laboratory, in Chennai, revealed the usage of Rhodamine B, which is a prohibited colouring agent as per the Food Safety and Standards Act (2006).

What is Rhodamine B?

Rhodamine B (RhB) is a chemical which is commonly used for dyeing. It is used in the textile, paper, leathers and paints industry as a colouring agent that helps in attaining colours that fall under the red and pink spectrum. Although in powdered form the chemical is green in colour, upon being added to water, it turns pink. Cotton candy, which is often spotted in the shades of pink, seems to borrow it from the usage of Rhodamine B

Why is it harmful?

The colouring agent, however, is prohibited in the food industry since researchers have identified that if food containing this chemical is consumed regularly, it can cause damage to the cerebellum tissue in the brain and to the brainstem that connects the brain to the spinal cord. These damages can lead to functional abnormalities and can hinder humans’ motor functioning. 

It can also cause the liver to dysfunction or lead to cancer. If a person consumes a larger quantity of food containing the chemical over a brief period of time, it can result in acute poisoning, say researchers.

Although banned by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the presence of this chemical has been found in foods including the fruits and vegetables sold in the market to the dishes served by street vendors. In August last year the FSSAI released a video on how to identify the adulteration of sweet potatoes with Rhodamine B, due to traders’ illegal usage of the chemical. A study from 2022, published in the Journal of Global Biosciences found the presence of Rhodamine B in chilli powders used for the preparation of different sauces by street vendors in Maharashtra.

Does this mean that Rhodamine B has always been used in the production of cotton candy and by all vendors? The answer is No. The FSSAI permits certain synthetic and natural food colouring synthetics that might not significantly harm the body when consumed in appropriate quantities. The ban was announced since a large number of cotton candy samples collected from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry were identified with Rhodamine B. Food safety officials have also been alerted to crack down on the factories that have been producing and supplying the confectionery using this chemical.

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