Is Titanium Dioxide in Food Safe? What Experts Say About the Skittles Lawsuit

  • Candy manufacturer Mars, Inc. is facing claims that Skittles are “unfit for human consumption” in a new lawsuit due to a food additive known as titanium dioxide.
  • Titanium dioxide, or E171, is commonly used as a coloring additive in food products like candy, chocolate, coffee creamer, cake decorations, chewing gum and even vitamin supplements.
  • While considered safe for consumption by the FDA, there is growing concern about the safety of titanium dioxide among consumer advocacy groups, with European countries recently banning the additive.

    You may be taking a second look at your favorite candy after hearing this week’s news about titanium dioxide. Recently, a lawsuit was filed against Mars, Inc. based on claims that the manufacturer’s popular Skittles candy is “unfit for human consumption.” The class-action lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in mid-July, alleged that the candy contained “heightened levels” of a “known toxin” called titanium dioxide — a food additive that the company previously pledged to phase out from their products in 2016, according to the Center for Food Safety.

    Some consumer advocacy groups and health agencies — particularly, those at the Environmental Working Group — have been pushing federal officers at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reconsider their existing rules on the additive, which is commonly found in processed snacks and sweets.

    But what is titanium dioxide, exactly? Here’s what you need to know about this popular food additive — including what products it’s used in and whether it’s safe to consume.

    What is titanium dioxide and what is it used in?

    According to the American Chemistry Council, titanium dioxide (TiO2) is an inorganic substance that’s used as a white powder in a variety of industrial and consumer goods, including in sunscreen, cosmetics, toothpaste, paint, plastics, food and more.

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    Because of its ability to absorb UV light, it’s particularly useful as an ingredient in sunscreens — while its light-scattering properties are great for applications that require white opacity and brightness, such as in paint and paper.

    Why is titanium dioxide used in food, including in Skittles?

    When used in food specifically, titanium dioxide is known as an additive called E171 and can be found in products like candy, chocolate, coffee creamer, cake decorations, chewing gum and even vitamin supplements. E171 is often used as coloring additive in foods, to lend the processed item a natural whiteness and opacity — such as in Skittles candy, where it’s used as a white base to help give the candies their signature bright, colorful hue.

    Is titanium dioxide safe to consume in food?

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deems that titanium dioxide may be safely used in cosmetics and that it “may be safely used for coloring foods generally,” subject to a set of tight restrictions — including that the quantity of the ingredient does not exceed 1% of the total weight of the product in question. Despite this, there is a growing concern as to what titanium dioxide does to the consumers’ bodies, says Amy Fischer, M.S., R.D., CDN, a registered dietitian in the Good Housekeeping Institute.

    “While [titanium dioxide] is considered Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA, it has been banned by many European countries,” Fisher notes.

    Indeed, the European Commission recently announced a ban of titanium dioxide as a food additive in the European Union, with the full ban taking place after August 7, 2022. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that titanium oxide should not be considered safe as a food additive, due to uncertainties about its ability to damage DNA.

    Other regulatory organizations have also issued warnings about the ingredient. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified titanium dioxide as a Group 2B carcinogen — in other words, an additive that may be “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” But the body maintains that research is currently lacking a sufficient link in animal and human cases to confirm longterm effects. The classification was given based on a few animal studies that showed increased lung tumors in rats associated with titanium dioxide inhalation.

    What other foods contain titanium dioxide?

    At this time, titanium dioxide is still used as an additive in thousands of food products in the United States. If you wish to avoid foods with this particular ingredient, you should be sure to check the label carefully for titanium dioxide, or “E171”, as a listed ingredient. Skittles isn’t the only product that reportedly makes use of titanium dioxide —news reports indicate there are more than 300 edible products available in your grocery store that include titanium dioxide.

    Generally, foods that commonly contain titanium dioxide include heavily processed items in these categories:

    • Candies and sweets (including Skittles, as well as Starbursts, Jell-O and Sour Patch Kids)
    • Cake decorations
    • Chewing gum
    • Chocolate
    • Milk products
    • Pastries
    • Salad dressing
    • Sauces
    • Vitamin supplements

      Of course, if you’re looking to avoid potentially unhealthy or harmful ingredients in your food, Fischer also advises that it’s not just about reading the list of ingredients — it’s also understanding exactly what each ingredient is. “A good place to start is to compare ingredients between rival brands,” she says. “Beware of purchasing foods that contain ingredients that you don’t understand.”

      The bottom line:

      To date, titanium dioxide is considered safe for consumption by officials at the FDA. Despite a growing concern over its safety in consumer products, there is currently not enough sufficient research to prove that it poses immediate health risks over consistent consumption or exposure here in the U.S.

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