The recent class action lawsuit against Mars Inc. for their use of titanium dioxide in Skittles has many people wondering why the chemical is used as a food additive in the first place, if it is safe to consume, and what the alternatives are if corporations decide or are compelled to phase it out.
Three Halo scientists provide very different perspectives on why titanium dioxide seems to be so difficult to replace.
Paul Westerhoff is an environmental engineer at Arizona State University. He noted that titanium dioxide is a naturally occurring compound that has been used for centuries as a white pigment. “It has many unique properties that other things don’t,” he explained. “It is very white; it has a sheen, even when other colors are mixed in, which is great for candy; it is silky smooth, so can augment the texture of products like chocolate without adding fat; it is a desiccant and anti-caking agent, which is very beneficial in things like cake mixes and spice blends; it is temperature and light stable; and it is very, very cheap.” Dr. Westerhoff listed some potential alternatives, but none of them have all of the properties that titanium dioxide does–and some of them, like silica dioxide and calcium phosphate (also known as hydroxyapatite or bone meal), are not necessarily safer for all people.
[Titanium dioxode] is temperature and light stable; and it is very, very cheap.
Keith Warriner is a Professor of Food Science at the University of Guelph. According to him, replacing titanium dioxide in foods doesn’t face a practical hurdle, but a philosophical one. Its main purpose in foods is to “make things brighter,” he said. “Why do we need brightly colored foods?” he mused. “Removing color additives would be better for our health and the environment. But we need a culture shift. In the 1980s some color additives were suspected carcinogens and banned. There was a movement towards removing artificial colors and having the natural even though it is duller. One suspects this could happen with titanium dioxide. But until people accept that natural colors are healthier but duller–and buy naturally colored products anyway–it won’t be removed.”
Removing color additives would be better for our health and the environment. But we need a culture shift.
Qinchun Rao is an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Science at Florida State University. He has yet a third take on the issue; in his view, the problem is regulatory. “Titanium dioxide is difficult to replace because the FDA doesn’t want to do anything. Since the pandemic, everything has been delayed. The Delaney clause, passed in 1958, states that agents shown to be carcinogens in any test cannot be added to foods. Titanium dioxide as used at that time was shown to be safe; but now about 30% of the titanium dioxide added to foods is in the form of nanoparticles, which can be absorbed through our skin and can pass to our organs through the lining of the GI tract. There are studies that suggest that these nanoparticles can be genotoxic, so their regulation should be re-evaluated under the Delaney clause. The working pace of federal agencies is very slow,” he concluded, “but I do believe that the FDA needs to do something at this moment.
The working pace of federal agencies is very slow, but I do believe that the FDA needs to do something at this moment.