If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you might have noticed an interesting lawsuit against the Mars Corporation for allowing “heightened levels” of titanium dioxide in its Skittles candy product. The lawsuit alleges that the seemingly innocuous little colored candies might be “unfit for human consumption” because the amount of titanium dioxide in them exceeds the restrictions put in place by the United States Food and Drug Administration.
But many people wonder, “What’s the big deal? Don’t people eat Skittles all the time with no negative effects?” If you’re like most people, you might be questioning just how harmful titanium dioxide is in foods and if you should be more worried about it.
Though I’m not a chemist or medical expert, I have done some research and have some insight into the current titanium dioxide issue. Here’s what I’ve learned about this common food additive and just how harmful it might be.
What Is Titanium Dioxide?
Titanium dioxide is an inorganic compound that is naturally occurring on the earth. This mineral is processed by some food manufacturers, then refined and added to food formulas. It is naturally white in color and is used to whiten all types of products—from edible candies and pastries to paper products and paint.
The thing is, titanium dioxide is regularly added to many different food products; not just candies. It can be found in some plant-based products (such as Beyond Meat plant-based chicken tenders). It also appears in Chips Ahoy! Cookies, Lucerne cottage cheese, and Great Value ice cream (among other products).
Why Is Titanium Dioxide Added to Food?
Titanium dioxide is often added to food to obtain the desired food color. It has light-scattering properties and is also useful as a filler. The FDA has issued guidance regarding the safe use of titanium dioxide as a food colorant. Part of the guidance includes the following restrictions:
- Titanium dioxide cannot exceed 1% of the food’s weight
- Titanium dioxide may not be used as a food colorant in certain foods (as specified under section 401 of the Act)
But despite the FDA’s stance that titanium dioxide is safe to use under certain conditions, many people still question its ability to harm those who consume it. In 2021, the European Food Safety Authority banned titanium dioxide from foods because the organization stated that the substance was no longer considered a safe food additive. The authority concluded that there are dangerous uncertainties about possible neurotoxicity and inflammation that can be caused by titanium dioxide.
What Are the Potential Harmful Effects of Titanium Dioxide?
There is still a lot to be learned about titanium dioxide and its effects on the human body. But there is some information out there that encourages caution when consuming it. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists the substance as a Group 2B carcinogen. This means there is not sufficient evidence to prove that titanium dioxide causes cancer, but there is sufficient reason to suspect that it may.
However, the primary reason for classifying titanium dioxide as a Group 2B carcinogen is because animal studies revealed that the inhalation of titanium dioxide dust could lead to lung tumor development. But the IARC later concluded that foods containing titanium dioxide do not carry this risk.
Given the lack of firm information on the potentially harmful effects of titanium dioxide, consumers are left to speculate whether eating products like Skittles could negatively impact their health. Some people have concluded that this whole matter is “much ado about nothing,” and they won’t cease eating their favorite rainbow-colored candies.
I lean toward avoiding foods containing titanium dioxide until we all know more about this ingredient and its potential impact on the human body. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll never “taste the rainbow” again, but I will likely exercise more caution and moderation when doing so.