A lawsuit against Skittles raises questions about titanium dioxide – a legal food additive

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

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Mark Linehan/AFP

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

Mark Linehan/AFP

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

That ingredient — titanium dioxide — is just one of thousands of legal food additives in the U.S. In its lawsuit, Jenile Thames says Mars failed to warn consumers about the potential risks of the ingredient, which is used as a color additive in Skittles.

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

“While we do not comment on pending litigation, our use of titanium dioxide is in compliance with Food and Drug Administration regulations,” a Mars spokesperson said in a statement to NPR earlier this week.

What is titanium dioxide?

Titanium dioxide is a white, powdery metal that is used in a variety of everyday products, including sunscreen, cosmetics, plastics, toothpaste, and paint. In food, titanium dioxide can appear in anything from candy and sauces to pastries, chocolate, chewing gum, and other sweets as a color additive.

Titanium dioxide has been used for decades to whiten some foods, although it has many other features.

What makes titanium dioxide harmful?

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

The agency cannot rule out ‘genotoxicity’ – damage to DNA – from consuming titanium dioxide particles which can accumulate in the body, although absorption is reduced.

The European Commission decided in February To prohibit the use of titanium dioxide as a food additive. The ban will take effect in full in August.

The additive builds up inside the body, and “the more you accumulate something that is in many foods, you can reach really harmful levels that are concerning,” says Tom Neltner, a chemical engineer and attorney who serves as senior director of the Safer Chemicals Initiative at the Environmental Defense Fund.

This type of buildup can alter DNA, he said, creating potential concerns about cancer and other health issues.

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

Neltner said the Environmental Defense Fund and other NGOs are working on a color additive petition — a legal way to ask the Food and Drug Administration to review titanium dioxide for safety.

Why is titanium dioxide allowed in the US?

An FDA spokesperson told NPR that while the agency cannot comment on the pending litigation, the agency continues to allow the safe use of titanium dioxide as a color additive in foods under certain conditions, including an amount not to exceed 1% by weight of the food.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food additives and colors under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, enacted in 1938.

The 1958 Food Additives Amendment to that body of laws means that all food and color additives must get review before entering the market and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

More than 10,000 chemicals are allowed in foods and food contacts, according to a 2018 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The available safety studies do not show safety concerns related to the use of titanium dioxide as a color additive,” an FDA spokesperson told NPR.

“Federal regulations require evidence that each substance is safe at its level of its intended use before being added to foods,” the spokesperson said, adding that FDA scientists continue to review new information to determine if the substance is no longer safe by law. .

But I love Skittles. Should I stop eating them?

There are many foods on the US market that contain titanium dioxide other than Skittles.

but, Many sweets and food makers are careful to avoid using titanium dioxide in their foods as a color additive.

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

Environmental and food health researchers have difficulty tracking the health effects of a single specific exposure, especially when color additives such as titanium dioxide are used.

“When I started out, we thought a lot of these chemicals came from products… And over time, we really realized that we were being exposed to a lot of these chemicals through the diet, and that’s exactly what we are,” said Dr. Sheila Satyanarayana, a pediatrician and environmental health specialist. and a professor at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute “Look Here”.

Sathyanarayana has focused most of her career on exposure to chemicals and how they affect a child’s development.

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

Neltner also expressed concerns about the impact of color additives such as titanium dioxide on children’s health.

“We are very concerned about children’s health because that’s when their immune system, their nervous system and their body are growing so fast, that you have to do it right,” he said.

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