Titanium Dioxide in Food: What You Need to Know

John Egan - The Upside Blog

by | Updated: September 8th, 2022 | Read time: 5 minutes

Lawsuits questioning the safety of a chemical found in many everyday products have parents wondering about letting their kids eat one of the world’s most popular brands of candy. Unfortunately, there’s no clear conclusion about the chemical’s possible harm.

At least two lawsuits filed recently in the U.S. claim the presence of titanium dioxide — widely used in the manufacturing of food — makes rainbow-colored Skittles candies, as one plaintiff puts it, “unsafe for human consumption.” Mars, the maker of Skittles, relies on titanium dioxide to enhance the color of the candy.

Woman Grabbing Colorful Candy From Bowl Hoping it Doesn't Contain Titanium Dioxide

One consumer group is ratcheting up the pressure on Mars to remove titanium dioxide from Skittles, asserting that the continued use of the chemical “is tragic for the millions of kids” in the U.S. who enjoy the candy. Meanwhile, Mars declares its use of titanium dioxide in Skittles complies with regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which governs Skittles and thousands of other food products.

What is titanium dioxide?

At the center of the Skittles storm is titanium dioxide, which critics characterize as a “known toxin.”

This white powdery substance, extracted from naturally occurring minerals, is an ingredient in an array of products. These include paint, adhesives, paper, plastics, printing ink, ceramics, roofing materials, prescription drugs, vitamin supplements, toothpaste, soap, cosmetics, sunscreen and processed food.

Among the foods that might contain titanium dioxide are:

  • Candy
  • Cake decorations
  • Chewing gum
  • Coffee creamer
  • Milk products
  • Snacks

Food manufacturers add titanium dioxide to either brighten colors or create a smoother texture. If a food product contains titanium dioxide, it might be shown on the ingredient label as E171 or TiO2. Or it might be lumped into a category like “artificial colors,” “color added” or “artificial color added.”

What skeptics say about titanium dioxide

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has identified titanium dioxide as being “possibly carcinogen to humans.” In addition, some research suggests it may be genotoxic, meaning it could damage your DNA.

Based on titanium dioxide’s potential harm to humans, the European Union banned it as a food additive in 2022.

After the filing of the first lawsuit challenging the use of titanium dioxide in Skittles, the nonprofit Center for Food Safety hammered Mars. The nonprofit alleges Mars failed to honor a pledge to remove titanium dioxide and other suspected toxins from Skittles and other products by 2021.

The Center for Food Safety says that as part of a 2016 agreement with it and other consumer advocacy groups, Mars promised to phase out titanium dioxide over a five-year period.

“Mars could have been a leader in removing toxins from our food chain, but instead they are lagging behind. We will continue to push Mars to act responsibly and keep its word,” Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the Center for Food Safety, says in a statement.

The nonprofit is petitioning the FDA to remove titanium dioxide from the agency’s list of approved food additives, as European Union regulators already have done.

What proponents say about titanium dioxide

In its defense, Mars Wrigley, the candy-making arm of Mars, stands by its use of titanium dioxide. Consumer safety “is of paramount importance to Mars Wrigley,” the company says.

“While we do not comment on pending litigation, all Mars Wrigley ingredients are safe and manufactured in compliance with strict quality and safety requirements established by food safety regulators, including the FDA,” Justin Comes, the company’s vice president of research and development, says in a statement provided to NPR.

For its part, the Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association pushes back against the chemical’s “alleged health risks.” It notes that recent complaints about the use of titanium dioxide in candies fly in the face of favorable scientific reviews conducted by two government agencies, the United Kingdom’s Food Standard Agency and Health Canada.

The association further emphasizes that the FDA approves titanium dioxide’s use as a food additive. The FDA stipulates that titanium dioxide cannot represent more than 1% of the weight of a food product that it’s in.

“With a legacy of around 100 years of safe production and safe commercial use across a vast number of industries, titanium dioxide has brought major benefits to society, with no harmful effects on people or the environment,” the manufacturers association proclaims.

Should you let your kids eat Skittles?

Mars and industry groups insist Skittles and other foods containing titanium dioxide are safe for kids or anyone else to consume.

However, advocacy nonprofits like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) warn against eating foods with titanium dioxide, due to its potential toxicity. EWG says kids are most susceptible to titanium dioxide exposure because they eat more candy than adults do and have a lower tolerance for chemical exposure.

The use of titanium dioxide in the U.S. “continues because of regulatory folly by the Food and Drug Administration, which allows problematic ingredients to remain undetected and unreviewed,” EWG says. “The FDA last examined the risks of the additive in 1966, but research in recent years demonstrates there are possible health harms from titanium dioxide that warrant a fresh look from the agency.”

For now, there’s no concrete answer as to whether your kids’ health could be jeopardized by eating Skittles or any other foods with titanium dioxide.

“Despite a growing concern over its safety in consumer products, there is currently not enough sufficient research to prove that it poses immediate health risks over consistent consumption or exposure here in the U.S.,” Good Housekeeping points out.

But if you want to err on the side of caution and avoid foods with titanium dioxide, EWG offers these tips:

  • Check the ingredient label to see whether titanium dioxide is listed.
  • Stay away from highly processed foods, which may contain titanium dioxide and other questionable ingredients.
  • Look for foods without titanium by exploring EWG’s Food Scores database.

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