Public health advocates say a common color enhancer added to thousands of US foods is toxic and dangerous, and have formally petitioned federal regulators to ban the chemical’s use.
Though the compound, titanium dioxide, has been widely used for decades and is found in foods like M&Ms, Skittles, Beyond Meat plant-based chicken tenders and Chips Ahoy! cookies, recent science has shown it is also linked to a range of serious health issues and accumulates in the body and organs.
The recent scientific discoveries prompted the European Food Safety Authority to ban titanium dioxide’s use in food in August, and the petition filed by five major US public health advocacy groups asks the US Food And Drug Administration (FDA) to similarly withdraw its approval.
“Recent scientific studies raise serious questions about the safety of the chemical’s use in food,” the petition’s authors wrote.
Titanium dioxide is used to brighten whites or effectively serve as a primer for other colors, and the Environmental Working Group non-profit found nearly 2,000 products in which the chemical may be used, though some estimates are as high as 11,000. The largest subgroups included candy, cakes, cookies, and desserts or dessert toppings.
Research shows the chemical is likely a neurotoxin and immunotoxin, and can damage the reproductive system, cause birth defects and damage genes.
“Those are things that we really want to protect, so removing titanium dioxide seems like an obvious step,” said Tom Neltner, senior director of safer chemicals at the Environmental Defense Fund and petition co-author. “There’s really no excuse to allow it to be used any longer.”
The chemical has come under increased scrutiny recently: a bill to ban the substance in food is moving through the California assembly, and a lawsuit filed earlier this year drew wide attention for alleging that Skittles candies are “unfit for human consumption” because they contain the chemical.
For decades, researchers and regulators thought titanium dioxide particles were large enough that they were not absorbed by the body and were quickly excreted. But newer research has found the nanoparticles are so small that they can be absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and move into the bloodstream where they can settle in organs.
The compounds are thought to remain in the body for years, and because they are so widely used, they accumulate faster than they can be expelled.
The FDA approved titanium dioxide for food use in 1966 and last reviewed it in 1973, when it concluded the chemical was safe. The law does not require the agency to periodically review chemical safety, and the petition mechanism is one of the very few ways the FDA can be compelled to review updated science.
The agency now has a year to make a decision about whether it will revoke the food-use approval, at which point industry will have a chance to object.
Neltner said the groups are certain the chemical no longer meets the legal definition for a safe additive, which states there must be “reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the intended use of the color additive”.
Moreover, safer alternatives to titanium dioxide exist, Neltner said, and the chemical serves no purpose beyond coloring food, so it is not essential to products.
But it is far from certain that the FDA will agree. Last year the agency told the Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association trade group that “available safety studies do not demonstrate safety concerns connected to the use of [titanium dioxide] as a color additive”.
Neltner said the agency’s comments did not offer scientific evidence to support the claim, which the petition will force the agency to provide.
“That’s not science, that’s not transparent – a petition forces them to use rigorous science and explain their decision,” he said.