We’ve seen the headlines about an ingredient with a part metal-, part chemical-sounding name: titanium dioxide. Food companies are responding to consumer inquiries about the use of the ingredient, and some companies are even taking steps to remove the ingredient from some products. We wondered…what exactly is titanium dioxide? Is it dangerous? Should we be on the lookout for this ingredient in the foods we eat?
We reached out to expert Paul Westerhoff, PhD, PE, BCEE, Professor & Vice Provost for Academic Research Programming, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, for some answers.
Best Food Facts: What is titanium dioxide and why is it used in food production?
Dr. Westerhoff: Titanium dioxide is a common additive in many food, personal care, and other consumer products. It is sometimes used as a whitener and sometimes as an anti-caking agent (to prevent the product from clumping). Titanium dioxide also gives some products texture – it’s used in some chocolate to give it a smooth texture – and is used in doughnuts to provide color and texture. It can also be used to create abrasion, as is found in some toothpastes.
Best Food Facts: What products contain titanium dioxide?
Dr. Westerhoff: Titanium dioxide is most commonly found in candies, sweets and chewing gums. Among personal care items, it’s most commonly found in toothpaste and some sunscreen lotions.
Best Food Facts: Is titanium dioxide safe for human consumption?
Dr. Westerhoff: Although there is not a lot of information available on the risks associated with consumption of titanium dioxide, it is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Research conducted by Arizona State University analyzed numerous readily-available products for the presence of titanium dioxide, including powdered doughnuts, chewing gum, whipped frosting, vanilla pudding and chocolate bars. Our research found the presence of titanium dioxide in the products tested, and also found that up to 5 percent of the titanium dioxide in some products was in the form of nanoparticles. Toxicity studies on nanoparticles in titanium dioxide have mainly focused on risks associated with inhalation and not consumption.
Children are exposed to more titanium dioxide than adults due to diet. Their diets consist of more candies, sweets and gum, but this tends to change as children get older.
Best Food Facts: Are there alternatives to titanium dioxide that food companies could use?
Dr. Westerhoff: Other ingredients that could possibly be used in place of titanium dioxide include calcium phosphate and silica dioxide. I’m not aware of the specific alternative Dunkin’ Donuts plans to use for its powdered sugar doughnuts.
In addition to Dr. Westerhoff’s expert insight, we found this article that addressed our questions about titanium dioxide. Some key takeaways:
- Titanium dioxide (not metal titanium) is an inactive, insoluble material that makes things look whiter – it’s in many products, including food, paper, paint and plastics.
- The biggest concerns about titanium dioxide seem to be specific to nanoparticles, but one expert explained that “assuming one type [of nanoparticle] …is potentially harmful because of what another type does is the equivalent of avoiding apples because you’re allergic to oysters.”
- Some studies demonstrate the potential for harm, but lack information on how much material and under what conditions significant harm could occur. Other studies show no effects. An expert summed this up: “It’s as if we’ve just discovered that paper can cause cuts, but we’re not sure yet whether this is a minor inconvenience or potentially life threatening.”
- More research is needed.
The original article appeared in The Conversation and can be read here.
Weir, A., Westerhoff, P., Fabricius, L., Hristovski, K., von Goetz, N. “Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles in Food and Personal Care Products,” Environmental Science and Technology (2012)
Singh, G., Stephan, C., Westerhoff, P., Carlander, D., Duncan, T. “Measurement Methods to Detect, Characterize, and Quantify Engineered Nanomaterials in Foods,” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety (2014)