What is titanium dioxide, the additive at the center of new Skittles lawsuit: NPR


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The lawsuit against Mars, the company that makes Skittles, points to titanium dioxide in candy. The ingredient is one of thousands of additives allowed in foods under federal regulations.

Mark Lennihan/AP

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Mark Lennihan/AP

The lawsuit against Mars, the company that makes Skittles, points to titanium dioxide in candy. The ingredient is one of thousands of additives allowed in foods under federal regulations.

Mark Lennihan/AP

A California man who claims Skittles contain a “known toxin” that renders them “unfit for human consumption” is suing the manufacturer Mars.

This ingredient, titanium dioxide, is just one of thousands of legal supplements in the US. In her lawsuit, Jenil Thames says Mars failed to warn consumers about the potential dangers of the ingredient used as a colorant in Skittles.

Mars said in 2016 that it would phase out titanium dioxide in its products over the next five years, according to the Center for Food Safety.

“While we are not commenting on the upcoming lawsuit, our use of titanium dioxide is in accordance with FDA regulations,” a Mars spokesman said in a statement to NPR earlier this week.

What is titanium dioxide?

Titanium dioxide is a white, powdery mineral that is used in a variety of everyday products, including sunscreen, cosmetics, plastics, toothpaste, and paint. In foods, titanium dioxide can appear in everything from candy and sauces to baked goods, chocolate, chewing gum and other sweets as a coloring additive.

Titanium dioxide has been used for decades to whiten certain products, although it has many other properties.

Why is titanium dioxide dangerous?

A 2021 European Food Safety Authority report states that titanium dioxide “can no longer be considered safe” as a food additive.

The agency could not rule out “genotoxicity” – DNA damage. from consumption of titanium dioxide particles and that they could accumulate in the body, although absorption was low.

The European Commission made a decision in February ban the use of titanium dioxide as a food additive. The ban will take effect in August.

The additive builds up inside the body, and “whenever you build up something that’s in a lot of foods, you can reach really harmful levels that are worrisome,” says Tom Neltner, a chemical engineer and lawyer who serves as senior director of safety. . chemicals initiative at the Environmental Defense Fund.

This type of buildup can alter DNA, he says, raising potential concerns about cancer and other health problems.

“This does not mean [titanium dioxide] is carcinogenic, it just means we have to be careful, and the fact that it enters the body and persists in the body is important,” Neltner said.

Neltner said the Environmental Defense Fund and other non-governmental organizations are working on a petition to add dyes, a legitimate way to ask the Food and Drug Administration to test titanium dioxide for safety.

Why is titanium dioxide legal in the US?

An FDA spokesman told NPR that while the agency could not comment on the upcoming lawsuit, the agency still allows the safe use of titanium dioxide as a coloring additive in foods under certain conditions, including in amounts not exceeding 1% of the norm. food weight.

The FDA regulates food and color additives under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.

The 1958 Food Additives Amendment to this code of laws meant that all food and color additives must be pre-screened and approved by the FDA.

According to a 2018 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, over 10,000 chemicals can be found in food and food contact materials.

An FDA spokesman told NPR that “available safety studies do not demonstrate safety issues associated with the use of titanium dioxide as a color additive.”

“Federal regulations require proof that each substance is safe at its intended level of use before it can be added to foods,” the spokesman said, adding that FDA scientists continue to review new information to determine whether the substance is safer in food. in accordance with the law. .

But I love skittles. Should I stop eating them?

There are many titanium dioxide products on the US market other than Skittles.

However, many candy and food manufacturers try not to use titanium dioxide as a coloring additive in their products.

“There are a lot of candies that don’t have titanium dioxide, so people have a choice and they can read the list,” Neltner said.

Environmental and dietary researchers have difficulty tracking the health effects of one particular exposure, especially when it comes to coloring additives such as titanium dioxide.

“When I started, we thought a lot of these chemicals were coming from foods… and over time we really realized that we are exposed to a lot of these chemicals through food, and that’s exactly what we are here for,” said Dr. Sheela Satyanarayana. , pediatrician, environmental health specialist and professor at the University of Washington and the Children’s Research Institute of Seattle.

Satyanarayana has focused much of her career on chemical exposure and its effect on child development.

“But what we don’t know, and what’s really frustrating, is what the long-term health effects of these small exposures over time are,” she added.

Neltner also raised concerns about the effects of coloring additives such as titanium dioxide on children’s health.

“Our biggest concern is the health of children, because that’s when their immune system, their nervous system, their body – grow so fast that you need to get it right,” he said.

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