Beginning Aug. 7, food manufacturers in Europe won’t be able to use titanium dioxide, a color additive. But that doesn’t mean the ingredient is toxic to humans.
On July 14, a lawsuit was filed against Mars, the company that makes Skittles, claiming the button-shaped candies contain toxic levels of titanium dioxide and are unfit for human consumption.
The lawsuit says Jenile Thames, who is listed as one of the plaintiffs, bought a bag of original Skittles from a California convenience store. According to the lawsuit, Thames “reviewed the labeling, packaging, and marketing materials of the products and saw the false and misleading claims that, among other things, the products are safe for human consumption.”
“The candy is well-known by its colorful array, which Mars has dubbed ‘the rainbow’ for marketing purposes to great success. The color of Defendant’s [Mars, Inc.] rainbow, however, is due to its use of TiO2 [titanium dioxide],” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit claims the chemical could cause harmful health effects, like organ damage, and could also alter someone’s DNA. The lawsuit used findings by the European Food Safety Authority as proof the candy could be “toxic.” The lawsuit also claims the chemical is banned in Europe.
Since the lawsuit was filed, there have been news reports on the claims. For example, British tabloid Daily Mail published the headline: “Taste the brain damage! Skittles manufacturer is sued over claims candies contain poisonous colorant titanium dioxide which can damage vital organs and DNA.”
“Skittles banned in Europe” was also trending on Google search after the lawsuit was filed.
Is titanium dioxide, an ingredient in Skittles, banned in Europe?
Yes, Europe banned the use of titanium dioxide, a chemical used in Skittles, in foods effective Aug. 7. But that doesn’t mean the chemical is confirmed to be toxic to humans. European studies found inconclusive evidence of toxicity, and the FDA in the U.S. still allows the use of titanium dioxide under certain levels in food.
WHAT WE FOUND
Titanium dioxide is white in color and is used to enhance the color and sheen of certain foods.
In May 2021, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued an updated safety assessment on titanium dioxide. According to the advisory, titanium dioxide, known in Europe as chemical E171, can no longer be considered as safe when used as a food additive because there is not enough data that establishes the maximum amount someone should ingest on a daily basis.
Because of the lack of data on daily consumption, a genotoxicity concern could not be ruled out and the safety of titanium dioxide couldn’t be confirmed, the European Commission determined. Genotoxicity is the ability for a substance or any other toxic agent to damage DNA, the genetic material of cells, which could lead to cancer.
The European ban on the use of titanium dioxide in foods starts Aug. 7, 2022. The European Commission is responsible for initiating and executing laws within the European Union.
Great Britain did not agree with EFSA’s findings. UK’s Committee of Toxicology determined “the conclusion is highly risk adverse based on the weak evidence available, and it might create unnecessary concern to the public.”
Titanium dioxide is safe for use in the U.S. in foods or for food coloring as long as the quantity doesn’t exceed 1% of the total weight of the food, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says.
In an email to VERIFY, the FDA pointed out the EFSA did not come to any definitive conclusions on titanium dioxide toxicity and the available studies on titanium dioxide do not demonstrate any safety concerns.
Some of the studies on titanium dioxide the EFSA reviewed to make its determination are also not relevant to human dietary exposure, or ingestion, of the color additive, the FDA said.
Norbert Kaminsky, Ph.D., the director of Michigan State University’s Center for Research on Ingredient Safety, said the current studies on titanium dioxide exposure have been limited to studies on animals.
For example, in a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, rats were exposed daily to high concentrations of titanium dioxide for about two years with no adverse effects. Kaminsky said more data is needed on how long-term exposure would or could harm humans.
“Toxicity is always going to be dependent on the amount you’re exposed to. So water would be toxic. Salt would be toxic. And as toxicologists often say the dose makes the poison,” Kaminsky said.
“Pretty much anything at a high enough concentration or dose can be toxic. But again, we have to put this into context as to what people are typically exposed to … With titanium dioxide, we’re talking about one to two milligrams per kilogram per day, which is a very, very small amount,” he said.
When asked about the lawsuit that cited the European ban as an example of why Skittles are toxic, a Mars, Inc., spokesperson told VERIFY in an email that they could not comment on ongoing litigation. The spokesperson said the amount of titanium dioxide in Skittles complies with FDA standards and regulations.
Mars, Inc. did not disclose to VERIFY how titanium dioxide is used in the company’s product, but Kelly Johnson-Arbor, M.D., the medical director at the National Capital Poison Center, said it’s likely used as a primer to help the candy’s colorful hues stick.
“If you think about Skittles, for example, if you have Skittles that break apart, they all have a colorful coating on top, but then they have a white coating underneath that most likely helps that colorful coating attach to the actual product … that most likely includes the titanium dioxide in that white coating,” Johnson-Arbor said.
“If you think of things like cake icing or whitening toothpaste, or even whipped cream, coffee creamer, these are all things that have titanium dioxide in them, they’re all things that are white in color,” she added.