In a lawsuit filed last week, a consumer alleged that Skittles were “unfit for human consumption” because the rainbow candy contained a “known toxin” – an artificial color additive called titanium dioxide.
Mars, the maker of Skittles, told multiple media outlets that the company couldn’t comment on pending litigation, but its “use of titanium dioxide complies with FDA regulations.”
Titanium dioxide is used in a wide range of food products and consumer goods – from candy to sunscreen and house paint. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains that the regulated use of titanium dioxide, specifically as a color additive in food, is safe under some restrictions.
However, some experts and food regulators in other countries disagree – pointing to potential, serious health consequences and rising concerns about the additive. Starting August 7, for example, the use of titanium dioxide in food will be banned in the European Union.
Here’s what you need to know about titanium dioxide:
What is titanium dioxide? Why is it used in food products?
Titanium dioxide, or TiO2, sometimes referred to as E171, is an inorganic, solid substance used in a wide range of consumer goods including cosmetics, paint, plastic and food, according to the American Chemistry Council.
In food, titanium dioxide is often used as an artificial color additive. Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist at the consumer health nonprofit Environmental Working Group, says titanium dioxide can generally be thought of as a “paint primer” – it often goes on a hard-shelled candy like Skittles before the color is added to give it a “uniform shine.”
Titanium dioxide “can also be found in dairy products to make them whiter and brighter … like frosting or cottage cheese,” Stoiber told USA TODAY, adding that the additive is used in other products – such as food or beverage instant mixes – as an anti-caking agent.
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Titanium dioxide is used in an enormous range of food products, which can feel jarring when looking at some of its other uses.
“It’s sort of ironic, maybe ironic is the wrong word, that the ingredient in paint that makes your kitchen shiny also makes your Hostess cupcakes shiny,” Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president of government affairs Scott Faber added.
Is titanium dioxide dangerous? Has it been linked to any health issues?
While the FDA maintains that the regulated use of titanium dioxide is safe, the European Food Safety Authority and some other experts warn of potential, serious health risks.
Most notably, a European Food Safety Authority safety assessment published in May 2021 pointed to genotoxicity concerns, as suggested by previous research. Genotoxicity is the ability of chemicals to damage genetic information such as DNA, which may lead to cancer.
“After oral ingestion, the absorption of titanium dioxide particles is low, however they can accumulate in the body,” Maged Younes, chair of the European Food Safety Authority’s expert Panel on Food Additives and Flavourings, said in a May 2021 statement.
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The authority did not identify a safe amount of titanium dioxide that could be consumed.
Matthew Wright, chair of the authority’s working group on titanium dioxide, noted that “the evidence for general toxic effects was not conclusive,” but that the panel couldn’t rule out genotoxicity entirely. There were also some current data limitations and the assessment “could not establish a safe level for daily intake of the food additive,” he stated.
What other candies and food contain titanium dioxide?
It’s hard to determine the total amount of food products that have titanium dioxide because federal regulations don’t require all producers to list its use on ingredient labels, but the list of foods containing the substance certainly doesn’t end with Skittles.
Of the products that include the additive in their labels, Thea Bourianne, senior manager at data consultant Label Insights, told Food Navigator USA in May 2021 that more than 11,000 products in the company’s database of U.S. food and beverage products listed titanium dioxide as an ingredient. Non-chocolate candy led those numbers at 32%. Cupcakes and snack cakes made up 14%, followed by cookies at 8%, coated pretzels and trail mix at 7%, baking decorations at 6%, gum and mints at 4% and ice cream at 2%.
What is the FDA limit for titanium dioxide?
The FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations allows for the legal, regulated use of titanium dioxide in food products, under some restrictions.
“The FDA continues to allow for the safe use of titanium dioxide as a color additive in foods generally according to the specifications and conditions, including that the quantity of titanium dioxide does not exceed 1% by weight of the food,” the FDA said in a statement to USA TODAY.
The FDA first approved the use of titanium dioxide in food in 1966, following its 1960 removal (along with the removal of other color additives) from the agency’s original “Generally Recognized as Safe” list. In 1977, titanium dioxide joined the list of color additives that are exempt from certification, which means “titanium dioxide” doesn’t have to be listed on the packaging of every product it’s used in, Faber noted.
“There are many uses of titanium dioxide that we don’t know about because they were made exempt from being on the package in 1977,” said Faber, who added that “nothing much has changed” since – other than the FDA approving some other uses of the color additive, such as expanding the use of mica-based pearlescent pigments (prepared from titanium dioxide) as color additives in distilled spirits over recent years.
Faber argued there hasn’t been enough change in these federal regulations in the decades following the FDA’s approval of titanium dioxide – especially as others increasingly point to potential health consequences.
“What titanium dioxide is really emblematic of … is the failure of FDA to look back at these old decisions and ask whether its decisions that were made in this case … 56 years ago (in the 1966 approval) still hold up,” he said.
In its statement to USA TODAY, the FDA maintained that, in all post-approvals for food additives, “our scientists continue to review relevant new information to determine whether there are safety questions and whether the use of such substance is no longer safe under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.”
When asked about the recent Skittles lawsuit, the FDA said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
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Is titanium dioxide illegal in other countries?
Though the regulated use of titanium dioxide in food products is legal in the U.S. and Canada, it’s banned in some other countries, notably throughout Europe. In May 2021, the European Food Safety Authority announced that titanium dioxide “can no longer be considered safe as a food additive.”
Following six months of phasing out the additive, titanium dioxide will be completely banned in the European Union starting August 7. France had previously banned the use of titanium dioxide in food starting in January 2020.
How can I tell if a product has titanium dioxide in it? How can I avoid the ingredient?
Some food products will include titanium dioxide on their nutrition label. But again, it can be hard to tell for those who don’t list the ingredient.
If you want to avoid titanium dioxide, Stoiber and Faber urge consumers to try and avoid processed foods as best as you can.
“By reducing processed foods in your diet, you can reduce the likelihood of not only eating titanium dioxide but eating other chemicals of concern,” Faber said, noting that consumers can also call their elected representatives urging them to support increased food safety legislation and take action with organization alliances like Toxic Free Food FDA. “America, once again, is falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to chemical safety.”
“We’re not only just concerned about titanium dioxide, there’s a whole host of other food additives that also have known harmful health risks associated with them as well,” Stoiber added.