A naturally occurring oxide of titanium. It’s a white powder that’s widely used as a whitening agent, UV filter, and thickener in many consumer products and a common food additive that has been shown to cause cancer and damage DNA. Because it’s naturally bright and reflective, it’s added to paints, plastics, toothpastes, cosmetics and paper to give them a cleaner color. Why is titanium dioxide in food? It makes white foods like powdered sugar, salad dressing, candies, chewing gum, biscuits, and dairy products even whiter.
Because it protects skin from both UVA and UVB radiation, titanium dioxide has been used in sunscreens for decades. And because it’s less irritating than UV absorbing chemicals like oxybenzone, it’s often the active ingredient in sunscreens for babies and those with sensitive skin.
Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are so tiny (smaller than 100 nanometers), there are concerns that these particles could penetrate the deeper layers of skin and end up in the bloodstream, posing potential health risks.
Some studies have found that nanoparticles can have toxic effects on our organs, especially the brain. There’s also evidence that nanoparticles can interfere with our immune system, cause DNA damage, and lead to some cancers. A study has shown that nano-titanium is carcinogenic to rats, and weakens their immune system.
This additive used in Skittles, Starburst, powdered donuts (Hostess and others – Dunkin Donuts removed it in 2015) and thousands of other foods should no longer be considered safe for human consumption, according to a March 2021 study from the European Union’s top food safety agency.
A scientific panel created by the European Food Safety Authority found that titanium dioxide “can no longer be considered as safe when used as a food additive.” The panel, citing concerns about titanium dioxide’s genotoxicity, or its ability to damage DNA, based its conclusion on a review of hundreds of scientific studies.
The study from the EFSA concluded that the additive may damage DNA and cause cell mutations, which was based on the results of hundreds of scientific studies. As a result, the EWG has called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to reevaluate its use and consider banning the additive from snack items to which children are especially drawn. Popular foods that contain the chemical include Skittles, Starbursts, Sour Patch Kids, Little Debbie baked goods, M&M’s, Betty Crocker Whipped Cream Frosting, Jell-O Banana Cream Pudding, Mentos, Trident and Dentyne gums, Vanilla Milkshake Pop Tarts, Nestlé Original Coffee Creamer, and over 3000 more foods.
EWG called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to quickly consider whether to ban titanium dioxide from use in food.
“A chemical that may damage our DNA should not be in Skittles, Starburst or cupcakes,” said EWG Nutritionist Aurora Meadows, a registered dietitian. Many popular candies, icings and cake mixes contain titanium dioxide for coloring.
EWG reviewed the listed ingredients of more than 100,000 products available on EWG’s Food Scores and found titanium dioxide in more than 3,000 ultraprocessed foods, including Swedish Fish, Jell-O, Little Debbie, Tasty Cakes and Sour Patch Kids. EWG’s analysis is based on a snapshot of product-specific ingredient data collected during the last eight months.
“This is yet another example of an additive currently being used in food that the FDA needs to take a second look at for safety,” Meadows said. She was referring to a previous EWG analysis of Food Scores data, which found an immune-harming food preservative in many kids’ favorites, like Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies Treats, Cheez-Its and almost 1,250 other popular ultraprocessed foods.
“While we can’t know for sure why a manufacturer chooses to use any additive in an ultra-processed food, it’s safe to assume that it’s being used to opacify the sugar-coated candy.”
For example, Meadows explains that the chemical is used in Skittles in the same way a primer is used on a wall before you paint it. You prime the wall for uniformity before adding color, and the same concept can be applied to how food manufacturers make the color of a Skittle “pop.”
In fact, you’ve probably seen a Skittle’s primer firsthand. For example, when Skittles jostle against each other in the bag, pieces of that color-coated outer layer break off or become chipped, exposing a white or opaque layer beneath.
Candy and snack foods aren’t the only items that contain the damaging chemical. As Meadows points out, the “Handbook of Food Science, Technology, and Engineering” edited by Y.H. Hui by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC states, “Titanium oxide…is often used to opacify systems such as low-fat/no-fat salad dressings and dairy products, pet foods, baked goods, sugar-coated candies, and other confections.”
While the EFSA highlights scientific studies that showed exposure to titanium dioxide in food could result in DNA damage, Meadows points out there are two data limitations in their study. The first includes the absence of studies that evaluate the impact of increased exposure to the additive over time due to its buildup in the body. Second, the study lacks research on the additive’s potential to cause cancer.
What’s even more telling? Some pet stores won’t even supply pet food that contains the chemical.
“As of May 2019, [most] pet food at Petco cannot contain titanium dioxide. So, our pets are being more protected than our kids,” says Meadows.
You’re probably wondering why this has yet to be addressed by the FDA. Unlike the USDA, which reviews synthetic ingredients used in certified USDA Organic products every five years, the FDA isn’t as willing to review the safety of food additives—even when new science emerges that exposes potential health risks.
If anything, this study gives everyone a little more incentive to ditch ultra-processed foods and instead, opt for eat more real, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds to keep your body safe.
For more, be sure to check out FDA Under Fire For Not Regulating Thousands of Chemicals in Your Food.
In 2012 a peer-reviewed publication from researchers at Arizona State University, ETH Zurich, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found titanium dioxide nanoparticles were widespread in food. It also found that children are likely receiving the highest exposure to titanium dioxide nanoparticles because they tend to consume more candy than adults. Given that chemical tolerances are lower for children than adults, this is especially alarming.
A 2006 study published in The Lancet found that “ultrafine titanium dioxide dust caused respiratory tract cancer in rats exposed by inhalation and intratracheal instillation.” The study raised concerns for workers exposed to ultrafine titanium dioxide dust on the job.
Other safety concerns have been raised over the use of titanium dioxide nanoparticles in sunscreens and cosmetics:
- “Kumazawa, et. al. in their study, “Effects of Titanium Ions and Particles on Neutrophil Function and Morphology” concluded that cytotoxicity (danger to the cell) was dependent on the particle size of titanium dioxide. The smaller the particle size, the more toxic it is… This conclusion is relevant to the consumer because of the cosmetics industry’s increasing use of micronized pigments in sunscreens and colour cosmetics. Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide are used in sunscreens because they are colourless at that size and still absorb ultraviolet light. Many cosmetic companies are capitalizing on metal oxide nanoparticles. We have seen, however, that if titanium dioxide particles used to act as a sunscreen are small enough, they can penetrate the cells, leading to photocatalysis within the cell, causing DNA damage after exposure to sunlight (Powell, et. al. 1996) The fear is that this could lead to cancer in the skin. Studies with subjects who applied sunscreens with micronized titanium dioxide daily for 2-4 weeks showed that the skin can absorb microfine particles. These particles were seen in the percutaneous layers of the skin under UV light. Coarse or fine particles of titanium dioxide are safe and effective at deflecting and absorbing UV light, protecting the skin, but consumers should avoid using products with micronized mineral pigments, either in sunscreens or colour cosmetics.”
Other studies of nano titanium dioxide have found:
- Nanoparticles of metal oxides can cross the blood-brain barrier
- Titanium dioxide nanoparticles induce DNA damage and genetic instability in mice.
- At “relatively high concentrations (100 mg/ml), nano titanium dioxide caused cytotoxicity and inflammation in human cells. Anatase TiO2 was 100 times more toxic than rutile Ti02. (Ti02 produced in sizes below 10 nanometers is typically anatase, not rutile.)
- “Inhaled nano TiO2 has been found to act like asbestos and silicone in that it accumulates in the lung and causes inflammation and can impact DNA proteins and cell membranes.”
Tips for Parents
Check the labels on food products
Food companies are required to indicate whether their products contain titanium dioxide as an additive on the label. However, small amounts are allowed in food packaging, which are not required to be listed on the label.
Urge the FDA to take action
Join us to call on the FDA to take a second look at the safety of titanium dioxide. The FDA last evaluated its safety 55 years ago – in 1966.
It’s also time for the FDA to close the so-called Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS, loophole to prevent new additives from being added to food without government oversight. Send a tweet urging the FDA to take this step, using the hashtag #ToxicFreeFoodFDA.
Find alternative products
Consumers can also protect themselves and their families. Avoid foods with titanium dioxide altogether or look for alternatives without it by using our Food Scores database.
Avoid ultraprocessed foods
Whenever possible, avoid ultraprocessed foods. Many contain concerning ingredients beyond titanium dioxide. In fact, current regulations allow more than 10,000 additives in our food, and companies don’t have to declare some of those substances on their product labels.