Food manufacturers in the United States are allowed to use a controversial ingredient in their products – titanium dioxide. The compound is a white pigment that's used to make products like Skittles look brighter and more colorful. However, some are concerned about its safety and believe it should be banned.
The use of titanium dioxide has come under scrutiny in recent years after research linked the ingredient to cancer in rats. As a result, the European Union decided to ban the compound in food products.
This evidence, alongside news of a recent lawsuit against Skittles manufacturer Mars Inc., has people asking if titanium dioxide should also be banned in the US.
So far, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn't taken action, but could that change in the future? The uncertainty has left fans of the brightly-colored candy with questions about safety and regulation. Here's what you need to know about titanium dioxide and the Skittles lawsuit.
What is the Skittles lawsuit?
California resident Jenile Thames is suing the Mars Corporation in a class action suit because she believes that Skittles are unsafe due to heightened levels of titanium dioxide — or TiO2 — in the candy.
According to the lawsuit, titanium dioxide is an ingredient in US-manufactured Skittles, but it's already been removed from the recipe in several European countries and banned in several others.
The concerns are that the 'Taste the Rainbow' candy is unsafe, a known toxin, and poses a significant health risk to unsuspecting consumers, points that are backed by the European Union's ban on titanium dioxide in food products.
The lawsuit claims that titanium dioxide can pass through biological membranes, circulate throughout the body, and enter cells.
Although using titanium dioxide in food products isn't illegal, its continued use in Skittles sold in the US contradicts statements Mars made 6 years ago regarding its plans to move away from artificial coloring agents. The plan was to phase out artificial coloring from its products over 5 years. Although this commitment didn't initially name titanium dioxide, when the Center for Food Safety contacted the food giant in 2016, Mars indicated that it was one of several ingredients it would remove by 2021.
As a result, experts from the Center for Food Safety stated that they were pleased with the outcome, noting that Mars was taking a positive step toward eliminating toxic nanomaterials from its line of food products. However, they urged Mars to accelerate its plans to eradicate these additives in light of the grave health concerns associated with titanium dioxide and other nanoparticles.
However, Mars has not yet removed titanium dioxide from Skittles in the US, and the California lawsuit wants them to take responsibility for the ingredients it uses. Thames is seeking damages for fraud and other violations of consumer protection laws, claiming she wouldn't have purchased Skittles had she understood their contents.
What Is titanium dioxide?
Titanium dioxide is a bright white pigment with light-scattering properties. Because of this, it's often used to add brightness or opacity to products and help colors stand out and appear more attractive. It also prevents products from caking and increases shelf life by preventing UV degradation that cracks and breaks down materials.
You can find titanium dioxide in various products, from paint and cosmetics to food items like baked goods, white sauces, frosting, sandwich spreads, and candy, including Skittles, where it helps produce the spectrum of hues.
Why has the EU banned titanium dioxide?
The European ban on titanium dioxide is based on European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reviews of scientific evidence.
The group, responsible for delivering independent scientific advice regarding food safety to the EU, assessed thousands of research publications. It found the genotoxicity potential of titanium dioxide — known in Europe as E171 — particularly concerning.
The concerns are that titanium oxide nanoparticles could accumulate in the body and alter DNA. In animal studies, the substance appears to affect digestive microorganisms, which could provoke diseases like intestinal and bowel inflammation and colorectal cancer.
Although this doesn't mean that titanium dioxide is carcinogenic, it means there's a possibility it could be damaging to human health. Therefore, because the EFSA cannot rule out these concerns, the European Commission has opted to ban the chemical.
However, the United Kingdom didn't agree with the EFSA, with its Committee on Toxicology noting that the evidence was weak and could create unnecessary public concern.
Where does the FDA stand on titanium dioxide?
The FDA maintains that titanium dioxide is safe for human consumption and classifies it as generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
The agency regulates food additives such as titanium dioxide through the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. It was amended in 1958 to require that all food and color additives have pre-market review and approval. The FDA approved titanium dioxide for human consumption in 1966, providing it doesn't exceed 1% of the food weight as an ingredient.
There are doubts regarding the EFSA findings as the agency did not reach any definitive conclusions on titanium dioxide toxicity. Additionally, some of the studies are irrelevant to human dietary ingestion of the preservative. For example, studies exposing rats to high concentrations of the chemical don't realistically reflect the amounts that someone would consume in food products. It's worth remembering that toxicity depends on the dose, as even water and salt are toxic in high enough quantities.
On balance, more data is necessary to determine how long-term exposure could affect human health. Therefore, the FDA will likely continue to monitor ongoing evidence and make necessary changes to regulations if solid evidence of health risks emerges.
Could manufacturers make skittles without titanium dioxide?
Yes, it's possible to make Skittles without titanium dioxide. Many food manufacturers in Europe have already started to make candy without the preservative to comply with the ban.
Additionally, the lawsuit notes that numerous companies have removed titanium dioxide from their ingredient lists but still maintain the colorful appearance of their products. The suit points to Swedish Fish Soft & Chewy Candy, Black Forest Gummy Bears, and Sour Patch Kids. Interestingly enough, Mars Inc. also has titanium dioxide-free candies, including M&Ms, and it's unclear why it's yet to remove the chemical from Skittles.
The Mars Corporation is being sued over their use of titanium dioxide in Skittles.
Titanium dioxide is a white pigment that has been linked with potential toxicity.
The FDA recognizes the additive as safe even though it is banned in Europe.
Overall, more solid scientific evidence is needed to understand any risks associated with titanium dioxide.
Center for Food Safety. Top Candy Company MARS Commits to Phasing Out Harmful Nanoparticles from Food Products.
The European Food Safety Authority. Titanium dioxide: E171 no longer considered safe when used as a food additive.
The Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry. Effects of long-term intake podiatry titanium dioxide nanoparticles on in testing inflammation in mice.
Safe Food Advocacy Europe. Regulatory challenges: the case of E171 in the EU and the UK.
The US Food and Drug Administration. Summary of color additives for use in the United States foods, drugs, cosmetics, and medical devices.