Titanium dioxide is no longer considered safe by the EU, but it is yet to be banned from food.

Not everyone has time to bake, and so a readymade, beautifully decorated cake from the supermarket can save on time, stress and money.

Yet could we be paying an unseen price for the convenience?

In May 2021, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) announced that titanium dioxide (TiO2), a whitener used in foods, medicines, cosmetics and toiletries, could no longer be considered safe when used in food.

Whilst it hasn’t actually been banned by the EU, an expert panel has recommended that its use should be reviewed.

Critical to this decision was the panel’s inability to exclude the possibility of genotoxicity – a term that refers to a chemical substance’s ability to damage DNA and potentially lead to cancer.

The panel could not confirm a definitive risk of genotoxicity, but based on the available research and data, could not rule it out either.

Because of this, according to the panel, it is not possible to establish a safe level for daily intake.

Concerns about TiO2 relate to the consumption of nanoparticles that are small enough to be absorbed around the body.

At the time of the EU’s announcement, Professor Maged Younes, chair of the expert panel, said: “After oral ingestion, the absorption of titanium dioxide particles is low, however they can accumulate in the body.”

Titanium dioxide and gut inflammation

TiO2 has been under the microscope for some time, but in more recent years, research on mice has found that it alters the gut microbiota, causing inflammation in the colon and changes to protein expression in the liver.

One study also found that obese mice were more susceptible to these adverse effects, suggesting that better health status may be important.

Whilst these studies do not prove susceptibility in humans, researchers raised concerns that TiO2 nanoparticles may have far-reaching effects on human health.

Found in a range of products for domestic use – including paint – TiO2 may be listed in the UK under different names including titanium dioxide, E171, or CI 77891.

In the USA, it is also known as Titania, Rutile, Anatase, Brookite, titanium white, Pigment White 6 (PW6), or CI 77891.

 Because it is used to whiten products, it may be found in foods such as white chocolate, sandwich spreads, soups and sauces, or toiletries such as sunscreen and toothpaste.

Although we did not find it in many of the food products listed, in one high street supermarket we found it listed as titanium dioxide in decorated ‘celebration’ cakes, vanilla frosting, royal icing, decorating icing, edible glitter, reduced fat coffee whitener, and one branded horseradish sauce.

We also found it listed on several toothpastes, usually as CI 77891.

Commenting, TC Callis, a nutrition and food regulation consultant, told Optimum Nutrition: “The trouble is toothpaste isn’t covered by food law.

“The European Union has a whole series of different directorates. Cosmetics and toiletries are one thing, medicines another, food law is another.”

TiO2 is also widely used in food supplements and medicines. “Particularly where the capsule has an opaque shell,” says Callis.

Callis explains that what happens in food law eventually filters through to other areas: “Food law generally impacts on medicine before it impacts on anything else, because medicine safety is considered to be so paramount.”

Callis gives the example of food colours that were banned from use in medicines and food, after being linked to behavioural issues in children.

She says: “That happened in food law first. Then in medicine law they eventually caught up and [the colours] are no longer permitted for use in paediatric medicines.”

Titanium dioxide suspended in France

In France, the use of TiO2 has already been suspended following a precautionary move that will remain in force at least until the end of 2021.

Currently, there is no indication that the UK government intends to follow suit.

Following the EU announcement, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) said in a statement that the safety of TiO2 as a food additive would be scrutinised by the independent scientific advisory committees that advise the FSA alongside existing scientific evidence, which would help decide what steps were needed to safeguard consumers and inform future policy.

However, Callis, who previously worked for the FSA, is concerned that UK food safety standards are at risk of being “slashed and burned” to accommodate future trade deals, and that TiO2 is only the tip of the iceberg.

“The trouble is with so many different chemicals in our environment we can’t single out one and say ‘this is a result of this’,” Callis says.

“It’s probably a combination [and] accumulation of all the different factors and this one [TiO2] is adding a little bit more.”

Size matters

For anyone concerned about TiO2, it can be avoided by looking at the labels on products.

Some products containing titanium dioxide may not contain it in nanoparticle form.

The difficulty here, however, it that it is not clear to the consumer which these are.

Unilever and Colgate were contacted for comment.

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