If you’ve been paying attention to nutrition headlines lately, you may have noticed a recent lawsuit claiming that Skittles, the colorful candy of “taste the rainbow” fame, were “unfit for human consumption” due to the presence of a “known toxin” called titanium dioxide.
The class-action lawsuit, filed July 14 in federal court in Northern California, said that Mars Inc., the maker of the candy, “had long known of the health concerns” posed by the chemical, and that even there was publicly committed in 2016 Gradually remove the substance from your products. However, according to the complaint, the candy company “disobeyed its own promise to consumers” and continued to sell Skittles laced with titanium dioxide, posing a “significant health risk to unsuspecting consumers.”
But what exactly is titanium dioxide? And should you worry about it in your candy, or any other food, for that matter? This is what we know.
What is titanium dioxide?
Titanium dioxide is a chemical compound, derived from a naturally occurring mineral, that is processed and used as a color additive, anti-caking agent, and bleach, among other things, in thousands of food products in a variety of categories. These include many gums, baked goods, sandwich spreads, salad dressings and dairy products such as cottage cheese, ice cream and coffee creamers, said Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit focused on health and safety. of the consumer.
Sweets and candies also make up a large part of the food products that contain the substance. A recent eWG review it concluded that “thousands of children’s candy”, including Starburst and other candy marketed for children, contained it.
Titanium dioxide is also used in a variety of non-food items, such as certain medications, sunscreens, cosmetics, paints, and plastics.
Is it safe to eat?
Depends on who you ask. Since 1966, the Food and Drug Administration has recognized the use of titanium dioxide in human food as insurance, as long as it does not exceed 1 percent of the weight of the food.
But despite its widespread use, studies published since the 1960s have raised questions about its safety. 2015 review of mostly animal (but some human) studiesfor example, found that titanium dioxide didn’t just pass through the body, as research in the 1960s suggested. Instead, the researchers found that the additive could be absorbed into the bloodstream through the intestines and accumulate in certain organs, which could damage the spleen, liver, and kidneys.
And in 2021, another review of animal and human studies raised the possibility that titanium dioxide might play a role in inflammatory bowel diseases and colorectal cancer.
This year, after a evaluation of the scientific literature by the European Food Safety Authority, the European Union decided ban titanium dioxide in food. The agency highlighted his concern that the additive could damage DNA and lead to cancer. While more research is still needed, the agency concluded that it was unable to establish a safe level of titanium dioxide in food.
Norbert Kaminski is a professor of pharmacology and toxicology and director of the Center for Ingredient Safety Research at Michigan State University, whose own animal titanium dioxide research it has been partially funded by industry groups such as the Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association and the International Association of Color Manufacturers. He said the studies used to justify the ingredient’s ban in the European Union contained methodological flaws. He added that a 1979 study by the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, found no link between titanium dioxide and cancer. In that research, mice and rats were given the chemical compound in extremely high doses, making up 2.5 to 5 percent of their diet, for two years.
In response to a request for comment, an FDA official said the agency reviewed the findings of the European Union ban and concluded that the available studies “do not demonstrate safety concerns related to the use of titanium dioxide as a food additive.” color”.
But Pierre Herckes, a professor of chemistry in the School of Molecular Sciences at Arizona State University, who authored a 2014 study on titanium dioxide, he said based on current research, which is mixed, it’s hard to say whether consumers should limit their intake of the additive. “I don’t have a clear yes or no,” he said.
Dr. Herckes said, however, that since candy and sweets contain some of the highest levels of titanium dioxide and are consumed primarily by children, there is cause for concern, given their smaller bodies and higher doses. higher relative. “If there is DNA damage, classic carcinogenicity, that is cumulative over time. When you’re exposed to that in younger years, it can affect you in later years,” he said.
What can I do if I want to avoid it?
While Mars Inc. is in the process of phasing out titanium dioxide in its products sold in Europe, the company has yet to take action in the United States, where titanium dioxide is still allowed.
In a statement emailed to The Times, Justin Comes, vice president of research and development for Mars Wrigley North America, said the company’s use of titanium dioxide “fully complies with government regulations. While we do not comment on pending litigation, all of Mars Wrigley’s ingredients are safe and manufactured in accordance with strict quality and safety requirements set by food safety regulators, including the FDA.”
Mars Inc. did not respond when asked if it planned to remove the additive from its products sold in the United States.
Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit organization, said she was puzzled why the company wasn’t removing titanium dioxide from the US market. “Maybe because the FDA hasn’t told them they’re going to ban it,” he said.
Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said avoiding the additive could be difficult, since food companies aren’t required to list it on their ingredient lists, and not all companies do. The chemical compound can be especially hard to avoid in processed foods that may simply state “color added” rather than list the specific ingredients used.
So your best bet for limiting your titanium dioxide intake is to choose products that don’t contain added dyes. Or you could stick to eating unprocessed, whole or organic foods when you can, said Marion Nestle, professor emeritus of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
Dr. Nestlé noted that food additives such as titanium dioxide were generally used to make “junk food look healthy and taste better.” He added that “those are not foods that a nutritionist would recommend except in very small amounts.”
However, the most important problem, Dr. Nestlé said, is that the FDA does not have the staff or funds to conduct the necessary scientific review of this or many other additives found in our food supply.
The agency has long needed to review the thousands of food additives it deemed safe decades ago, based on research that was typically provided by industry or based on no investigation at all, Mr. Faber added.
“Titanium dioxide is really the symbol for a lot of chemicals that were reviewed for safety, in some cases, over 50 years ago by the FDA and haven’t been reviewed since,” he said. “So titanium dioxide is part of a bigger story about regulatory failure.”
That’s why lawmakers have introduced bills that would require the FDA better ensure safety of chemicals before adding them to food regularly assess them for safety. Barring that, it’s up to individual food companies to decide whether to include additives like titanium dioxide in their products, just as it’s up to individual consumers to decide whether to eat them.
As for Skittles in particular, Dr. Nestlé said that since there are suspicions that the additive may be carcinogenic, “Mars should remove it. They shouldn’t use it.” She added: “Why risk it?”
Should this affect your choices at the supermarket? And will this affect the outcome of the lawsuit against Mars Inc.? Looks like the jury is still out.