Is skittles toxic? What you should know about food additives titanium dioxide

If you’ve been paying attention to the nutrition headlines lately, you might have noticed a lawsuit recently that claimed that Skittles – the colorful candy of “rainbow-tasting” fame – were “unfit for human consumption” due to the presence of a “known ‘poison'” ingredient called titanium dioxide.

The class action lawsuit, filed July 14 in Northern California federal court, said Mars, which makes the candy, had “long known about the health problems” the chemical posed, and even publicly committed in 2016 to phase out the substance from its products. However, according to the complaint, the candy company “violated its promise to consumers” and continued to sell Skittles with titanium dioxide, which poses a “significant health risk to unsuspecting consumers.”

But what exactly is titanium dioxide? And should you be concerned about it in your dessert — or any other food, for that matter? Here’s what we know.

Titanium dioxide is a chemical compound, derived from a natural mineral, that is processed and used as a color additive, anti-caking agent and bleach, among other things, in thousands of food products across a range of categories. These include many chewing gums, baked goods, sandwiches, salad dressings and dairy products such as cheese, ice cream, and coffee creamers, said Tasha Stoeber, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization focused on consumer health and safety.

Candy and sweets also make up a significant proportion of food products containing this substance. A recent EWG review concluded that “thousands of baby sweets,” including Starburst and other sweets marketed to children, contained it.

Titanium dioxide is also used in a variety of non-food items, such as some medicines, sunscreens, cosmetics, paints, and plastics.

This depends on who you ask. Since 1966, the Food and Drug Administration has recognized the use of titanium dioxide in human food as safe, 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. For example, a 2015 review of studies mostly in animals (but some humans) found that titanium dioxide doesn’t just pass through the body, as research in the 1960s suggested. Instead, researchers have found that the additive can be absorbed into the bloodstream through the intestines and accumulate in certain organs, potentially damaging 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 disease and colorectal cancer.

This year, after an evaluation of the scientific literature by the European Food Safety Authority, the European Union decided to ban titanium dioxide in food. The agency highlighted its concerns that the additive could damage DNA and lead to cancer. And while more research is still needed, the agency concluded that it could not determine a safe level of titanium dioxide in food.

However, Britain and Canada disagreed with the EU’s decision and continued to allow titanium dioxide in food.

Norbert Kaminsky is a professor of pharmacology and toxicology and director of the Center for Research on Ingredient Safety at Michigan State University whose animal research on titanium dioxide was funded in part by industry groups such as the Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association and the International Association of Color Manufacturers. He said the studies used to justify banning the ingredient in the European Union contained methodological flaws. He added that a 1979 study conducted by the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, found no link between titanium dioxide and cancer. In this research, mice and rats were given the chemical compound in very large doses — up to 2.5 to 5 percent of their diet — over two years.

In response to a request for comment, an FDA official said the agency had reviewed the results of the EU ban and concluded that the available studies “do not demonstrate safety concerns related to the use of titanium dioxide as a color additive.”

But Pierre Herks, a professor of chemistry in the Arizona State University School of Molecular Sciences who was an author of a 2014 study on titanium dioxide, said that based on the current, mixed research, it’s hard to say whether consumers should restrict their consumption of the additive. “I don’t have a clear yes or no answer,” he said.

However, Dr. Herks said that because sweets and sweets contain some of the highest levels of titanium dioxide and are mostly consumed by children, there is cause for concern, given their smaller bodies and higher relative doses. “If there is damage to the DNA, the classic carcinogenicity is cumulative over time. When you’re exposed to it in your younger years, it can hit you in later years.”

While Mars Inc. On phasing out titanium dioxide in its products sold in Europe, the company has not yet taken action in the United States, where titanium dioxide is still allowed.

In a statement emailed to The Times, Justin Commis, vice president of research and development at Mars Wrigley in North America, said the company’s use of titanium dioxide is “fully compliant with government regulations. Although we do not comment on pending litigation, all Mars Wrigley ingredients are safe and manufactured under strict quality and safety requirements set by food safety regulators, including the Food and Drug Administration.

Mars did not respond when asked if it plans to remove the additive from its products sold in the United States.

Jade Hanson, director of policy for the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, said he was baffled by the company’s failure to remove titanium dioxide from the US market. “Maybe because the FDA didn’t tell them they were going to ban it,” he said.

Moving away from the additive can be difficult, said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, since food companies are not required to include it on their ingredient lists, and not all companies do. It can be difficult to avoid a chemical compound in processed foods that may simply be referring to “adding color” rather than listing the specific ingredients used.

So, your best bet to reduce your consumption of titanium dioxide is to choose products that do not contain added colors. You can stick to eating unprocessed, whole, or organic foods whenever you can, said Marion Nestle, professor emeritus of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

Dr. Nestle noted that food additives such as titanium dioxide are generally used to make “fast food look healthier and taste better”. “These are not foods that a dietitian is likely to recommend except in very small amounts,” she added.

The biggest problem, though, Dr. Nestle said, is that the Food and Drug Administration does not have the staff or funds to do the scientific review needed for this additive or the myriad other substances that are in our food supply.

Mr. Faber added that the agency had long needed to review thousands of food additives that it had deemed safe for decades, based on research typically provided by industry or on the basis of no research at all.

“Titanium dioxide is really the label child of many chemicals that have been reviewed, in some cases, over 50 years ago for safety by the FDA and haven’t been reviewed since,” he said. “So titanium dioxide is part of a larger story about regulatory failure.”

That’s why lawmakers have introduced bills that would require the Food and Drug Administration to better ensure the safety of chemicals before they are added to food and regularly evaluated for safety. Barring that, it is up to each food company to decide whether to include additives like titanium dioxide in their products, just as it is up to individual consumers to decide whether to eat them.

For Skittles in particular, Dr. Nestle said that because there were suspicions that the additive might be carcinogenic, “Mars should take it out. They shouldn’t be using it.” She added, “Why take the opportunity?”

Should this affect your choices at the supermarket? Will this affect the outcome of the lawsuit against Mars? Looks like the jury is still out.

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