From food colors to preservatives, you’re probably curious about what ingredients are putting everyday foods on your shopping list…and why they’re even there in the first place.
One of these additives is titanium dioxide (E171), an odorless powder that enhances the crisp white color or opacity of foods. This is often find in chewing gum, sweets, pastries, chocolates, coffee creamers and cake decorations. It is also used in food packaging to preserve the shelf life of a product. But should we worry about consuming it?
Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies titanium dioxide as “generally recognized as safe”, other organizations have issued warnings. Keep reading to learn more about this common food additive, what it’s used for, and how it can impact your health.
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What does titanium dioxide do?
Simply put, titanium dioxide has been used in the food industry for coloring purposes.
As Aurora Meadows, MS, RD, nutritionist for the Environmental Working Grouppreviously said Eat this, not that!: “Titanium dioxide is a synthetic food coloring that is also used to make paints and consumer products bright white.” Meadows also explained that the chemical is used in candy like Skittles the same way a primer is used on a wall before painting it. You prime the wall before you add color, and the same concept can be applied to how food manufacturers “pop” color from a Skittle.
Besides its use in food, titanium dioxide is widely used as a color enhancer in cosmetics and over-the-counter products like lipsticks, sunscreens, toothpastes, creams, and powders. It is especially useful in sunscreens as it is UV resistant and helps block the sun’s rays.
In beauty products, however, the additive is usually found in the form of nano-titanium dioxide, which is smaller than the food-grade version. This leads to the question…
Is it safe to consume?
In May 2021, an explosive study of the The main food safety agency of the European Union concluded that titanium dioxide should no longer be considered safe as a food additive, citing its ability to damage DNA, as well as the inability consider any amount safe to ingest daily.
“Critical to reaching this conclusion is that we could not rule out genotoxicity issues following the consumption of titanium dioxide particles,” said Professor Maged Younes, chair of EFSA’s expert panel on food additives and flavorings (FAF). Genotoxicity refers to the ability of a chemical to damage the genetic material of cells.
For similar reasons, The International Agency for Research on Cancer listed titanium dioxide as a Group 2B carcinogenic hazard-AKA an additive that may be carcinogenic but currently lacks sufficient animal and human research to be confirmed.
Some research with rats has shown that titanium dioxide can accumulate in the liver, spleen, and kidneys. Other research has linked it to irritable bowel syndrome. That said, most studies use doses higher than what the average person would typically consume, so the scientific community can’t say for sure whether or not titanium dioxide is harmful to human health.
Yet in response to the European Food Safety Agency’s 2021 findings, the Environmental Working Group took a standcalling on the US Food and Drug Administration to consider a ban on titanium dioxide.
Interestingly, many pet food companies have already used it in their products. Since May 2019, for example, most pet food Petco cannot contain titanium dioxide.
How to avoid eating titanium dioxide?
Today, titanium dioxide is still added to thousands of food products in the United States – to the tune of more than 3,000 ultra-processed foods – due to the The FDA position that it is authorized under certain conditions and in small quantities.
It’s a different story in other countries, however. In 2020, France banned titanium dioxide, prompting lobby groups to urge the European Commission to ban the additive across the European Union. Therefore, titanium dioxide is now banned in EU territories, such as Northern Ireland. Switzerland has followed suit and is enact a ban on the addendum from September 2022.
However, according to Food Safety Newsthe UK and Scotland have recently chosen not to ban titanium dioxide from their food supply.
As for your own kitchen and pantry, you can keep an eye out for titanium dioxide, or “E171,” on ingredient labels so you know which packaged foods contain the additive. Some of the more popular products include Skittles, Starbursts, Jell-O, Sour Patch Kids and Little Debbie baked goods.
To learn more about additives, find out why the FDA is being criticized for not regulating thousands of chemicals in your food.