The safety of titanium dioxide in food, an additive found in thousands of ultra-processed foods, is now being questioned by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) after an in-house study conducted in March. In a surprising twist, the study concluded that the agency no longer considers titanium dioxide a safe food additive. So what does this mean?
The results of the study were a re-examination of the EFSA’s safety conclusions which were published in 2016, which were themselves a reassessment of the EFSA’s original assessment in 2009. Why the sudden change? Well, this study took new data into consideration that was not available prior to 2016 that posits titanium dioxide may cause cell mutations or damage DNA.
Titanium dioxide is derived from titanium, the ninth most common element in the earth’s crust. On the periodic table of elements, it is classified as a transitional metal and it interacts with oxygen to form titanium oxides which are commonly found in dusts, sands and oils. Aside from in food, titanium dioxide can be found in paint, topicals and skincare products — mainly sunscreen — as it is used as an ultraviolet light filter.
In food, Titanium dioxide can be found in Starbursts, Skittles, Sour Patch Kids, Jello and more than 3,000 other ultra-processed foods – those that are particularly sugary and attract children. Titanium dioxide has the ability to give foods a smoother texture on the tongue and provide opacity to candies, frostings and baked goods. It is also used as white colorant in some dairy products to replace more expensive dairy solids. Using it as an additive to dairy can also reduce calories, fat and protein compared to adding milk, cream or whey powders.
In the US, titanium dioxide in food was approved as a colorant by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1966. The agency exempts it from certification, which is indicative of it being a natural colorant. The FDA does, however, limit its use to not exceed one percent of a food’s weight. But just because it can be used, doesn’t mean that all brands are willing to use it.
Titanium dioxide is on Whole Foods’ list of unacceptable ingredients in food. Panera Bread included it in its 2015 “no-no list.” Several other brands, including Dunkin’ and So Delicious, have removed it or reformulated its products to be titanium dioxide-free. Despite this, the ingredient can still be found in thousand of foods, mainly fat-free ranch dressings and cheeses. Some fat-free ice creams, snack cakes, cookies, confections, jelly beans and mints also contain titanium dioxide.
While titanium dioxide’s brilliant white color makes it irreplaceable, there are a few alternatives on the market. In 2017, calcium carbonate was approved as a color additive with no maximum usage limits in gums and inks on their surface, mints and candies. Another option for opacifying foods is rice starch or mineral-based solutions in conjunction with other natural ingredients.
While the FDA has not re-evaluated the colorant since its approval, the National Law Review reported that “a ban is expected to be adopted in September and come into force towards the end of the year. Transitional periods will likely apply, but a total ban is likely to be enforced from the end of 2022.” But as US consumers look for cleaner labels and prioritize minimally processed foods, that brilliant white color may soon be unfavorable.