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Concerns Raised About Titanium Dioxide in Food

Posted in Food Safety,Our Blog on July 9, 2024

Titanium dioxide is a popular mineral found in sunscreen, but it’s also used in a wide range of foods — in the United States, at least. While titanium dioxide appears in foods like frozen pizza, coffee creamer, and candy in the U.S., the ingredient is banned in food in the European Union. But there’s an increasing level of concern in the U.S. about how titanium dioxide impacts people who eat it. Legislators in California previously tried to ban titanium dioxide from food as part of the California Food Safety Act, but the ingredient didn’t appear in the final approved version of the law.

In case you’re not familiar with it, titanium dioxide is an odorless powder used to enhance the white color of products. It’s also used in plastics and paint, but those versions of the mineral are different from food-grade titanium dioxide. “It has no nutritional value,” says Heidi J. Silver, R.D., Ph.D., a research professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “It is used to whiten food products.”

What is Titanium Dioxide

Titanium dioxide is produced in two main forms. The primary form, comprising over 98 percent of total production, is pigment grade titanium dioxide. The pigmentary form makes use of titanium dioxide’s excellent light-scattering properties in applications that require white opacity and brightness.

The other form in which titanium dioxide is produced is as an ultrafine (nanomaterial) product. This form is selected when different properties, such as transparency and maximum ultraviolet light absorption, are needed, such as in cosmetic sunscreens.

The FDA has issued guidance clarifying the safe use of titanium dioxide pigment as a food colorant and has stated that titanium dioxide may be safely used in cosmetics, including those intended for use around the eye. FDA also regulates the safety and effectiveness of sunscreen active ingredients, including nanoscale titanium dioxide.

Why is Titanium Dioxide Banned in Some Places?

Titanium dioxide was banned as a food additive in the European Union in 2022. The ban happened after a safety assessment from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found data gaps and uncertainties in the use of titanium dioxide in food. The safety assessment didn’t conclude that titanium dioxide is a definite risk to human health, but it also didn’t rule it out as a possibility. The assessment also couldn’t rule out that titanium dioxide can cause DNA or chromosomal damage.

“A critical element in reaching this conclusion was that EFSA could not exclude genotoxicity concerns after consumption of titanium dioxide particles,” an EFSA spokesperson told Food & Wine. “After oral ingestion, the absorption of titanium dioxide particles is low. However, they can accumulate in the body.”

In the EU, when a food additive’s safety can’t be confirmed, it can be subject to a ban.

There are a few health concerns that have surfaced around the use of titanium dioxide in food. As we mentioned, the EFSA found the ingredient unsafe, and the organization specifically noted that there were uncertainties around the mineral causing bodily inflammation and neurotoxicity. Inflammation has been linked to a range of serious health conditions like heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease, while neurotoxicity can cause changes in how the nervous system works.  “The concern is that when titanium dioxide is ingested — especially in the nanoparticle form — it can enter our cells and generate radicals to cause disruption to the cell, which then can become cancerous,” says Keith Warriner, Ph.D., a researcher and professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph.

However, titanium dioxide “does appear to have a role in producing reactive oxygen species, inflammation, and possibly DNA damage and carcinogenesis,” says Silver. “These effects have been shown in rodent studies — not human studies — when toxicity such as lung tumors and thyroid tumors have developed, but the concentration of titanium dioxide provided in rodent studies is quite high compared to the particle sizes in foods.” As a result, Silver says, “the biological and cellular effects on humans are not completely known.”

Still, Joe Zagorski, Ph.D., a toxicologist for the Center of Research on Ingredient Safety at Michigan State University, says he’s not overly worried about the risk of eating titanium dioxide. “When consumed within regulated limits, I have no concern with the use or consumption of food-grade titanium dioxide,” he says.

Foods That May Contain Titanium Dioxide

  • Coffee creamer
  • Salad dressing
  • Candy
  • Some sauces
  • Soups
  • Broths
  • Chewing gum
  • Pastries

If you’re concerned about titanium dioxide in your food, Warriner says it’s important to read labels carefully, although you may need to read between the lines. “It may be listed as an ingredient on food labels, or as ‘artificial color’ or ‘color added’ on candy, cookies, and other foods,” says Liora Fiksel, MPH, project manager, Healthy Communities the Environmental Defense Fund.

Zagorski also suggests mixing up your diet. “Individuals who vary the foods and beverages in their diet limit the consumption of any single ingredient,” he says. It is also important to keep up with recall news as well.

To keep up with other food facts and food safety news please follow Make Food Safe.