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A Skittles lawsuit raises questions over titanium dioxide — a legal food additive

NPR (July 24, 2022)

Originally published here.

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

That ingredient — titanium dioxide — is just one of the thousands of legal food additives in the U.S. In his lawsuit, Jenile Thames says Mars failed to warn consumers about the potential dangers 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 the use of titanium dioxide in its products over the next five years.

“Safety is of paramount importance to Mars Wrigley. Titanium dioxide is a common colorant widely used across many industries and in everyday products, including many foods,” said Justin Comes, the company’s vice president of research and development, in a statement to NPR.

Comes said the company’s use of titanium dioxide fully complies with FDA regulations.

“While we do not comment on pending litigation, all Mars Wrigley ingredients are safe and manufactured in compliance with strict quality and safety requirements established by food safety regulators, including the FDA,” Comes added.

What is titanium dioxide?

Titanium dioxide is a white, powdery mineral 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, chocolates, chewing gum and other sweets as a color additive.

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

What makes titanium dioxide harmful?

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

The agency could not rule out “genotoxicity” — damage to DNA — from consumption of titanium dioxide particles and that they could accumulate in the body, although the absorption was low.

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

The additive builds up inside the body and “whenever you have accumulation to something that’s in so many foods, you can get to really harmful levels that raise concerns,” says Tom Neltner, a chemical engineer and lawyer who serves as senior director of the safer chemicals initiative at the Environmental Defense Fund.

That type of buildup could alter DNA, which creates potential concerns about cancer and other health issues, he said.

“That doesn’t mean [titanium dioxide] is carcinogenic, it just means we’ve got to be careful, and the fact that it gets into the body and is retained in the body is important,” Neltner said.

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

Why is titanium dioxide allowed in the U.S.?

A spokesperson for the FDA told NPR that while the agency cannot comment on pending litigation, the agency continues to allow for the safe use of titanium dioxide as a color additive in foods under certain conditions, including a quantity that does not exceed 1% of the food’s weight.

The FDA regulates food and color additives under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, enacted in 1938.

The 1958 Food Additives Amendment to that set of laws meant that all food and color additives must get pre-market review and approval from the FDA.