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Is Titanium Dioxide Food or Poison?

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Is Titanium Dioxide Food or Poison?

Food additive or carcinogen?

This was the title of an alarming article posted in ‘The Guardian1,” in June 2022, alerting to the growing list of chemicals that have already been banned by the European Union but are still broadly used in the United States.

According to the Environmental Working Group, more than 10,000 chemicals are allowed in food sold in the U.S. From this list, some are considered direct additives, which are added intentionally to processed foods, such as preservatives and colors. Others are considered indirect additives, such as heavy metals, which contaminate food during processing, storage, and packaging2.

Titanium dioxide (also known as E171) is one of these chemicals, and the “food ingredient,” or should we say “the poison” mentioned in The Guardian post.

Titanium Dioxide (E171)

Titanium dioxide is a naturally occurring oxide of titanium commonly used in the US. This compound has long been used as a colorant and whitening agent in many foods, including baked goods, pastries, spreads, soups, salad dressings, and food supplements. 

Titanium dioxide was banned in Europe in 2021 after a report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). EFSA is the agency of the European Union that provides independent scientific advice and communicates on existing and emerging risks associated with the food chain3.

Health Effects of Titanium Dioxide

Regarding the use of titanium dioxide as a food additive, after reviewing the literature, EFSA experts concluded that:

“Taking into account all available scientific studies and data, the Panel concluded that titanium dioxide can no longer be considered safe as a food additive. A critical element in reaching this conclusion is that we could not exclude genotoxicity concerns after the consumption of titanium dioxide particles. After oral ingestion, the absorption of titanium dioxide particles is low, however they can accumulate in the body4”.   

But what is “genotoxicity”?

According to the literature, “genotoxic carcinogens are chemicals that exert carcinogenicity via the induction of mutations. Owing to their DNA interaction properties, there is thought to be no safe exposure threshold or dose. Genotoxic carcinogens are regulated under the assumption that they pose a cancer risk for humans, even at very low doses5.”

This is scary: potential cancer-causing chemicals can be added to the food we eat?!

Not in Europe. This was exactly what the EFSA experts reported:

“Although the evidence for general toxic effects was not conclusive, based on the new data and strengthened methods we could not rule out a concern for genotoxicity and consequently we could not establish a safe level for daily intake of the food additive4.”

The EFSA was not able to rule out genotoxicity concerns. This means that there is a possibility that the use of titanium dioxide as a food additive might cause DNA or chromosomal damage, which may lead to cancer.

In the European Union (EU), the fact that the safety of a food additive cannot be confirmed is sufficient to warrant a ban. 

But Not in the United States!

Unfortunately, while the authorities in Europe tend to take a preventative approach to issues, in the United States the response usually comes after the damage is done and confirmed. 

But titanium dioxide is just one more, of a list of many chemicals that have been banned in the European Union but are still used in the US. Other examples are potassium bromate (E924), brominated vegetable oil (E443), azodicarbonamide (E927a), and propylparaben (E217).

In future posts we will address the health concerns and risks of using these chemicals as food additives, why they have been banned in the EU, and why they should be banned in the US.

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