Pick up a processed food product and you may notice a new ingredient: titanium dioxide.  Or perhaps you won’t see it listed as an increasing number of products have introduced the low cost metal additive without disclosure.  As more and more people are beginning to become concerned with the ingredients in their food, it’s time we take an objective look at this one.

What is titanium dioxide?

Titanium dioxide is a mineral product that is mined from various ores (primary rutile).  A common ingredient in processed foods, pigment agents, including paint, it is a white, colorless and odorless powder.

tio2

In processed food products titanium dioxide is used to add a uniform white coloring and in vitamins it is also often used as a filler.  It is worth noting that there are more natural alternatives to titanium dioxide in food, including rice starch or calcium carbonate.

How is titanium dioxide produced?

Mining of rutile takes place primarily in developing regions around the world. A significant amount of titanium dioxide comes from Sierra Leone.  A country where war, poverty and slave labor are an unfortunate part of every day life.

“Before mining can take place, the selected area must be deforested and then flooded using nearby rivers or previously made damns from formerly dredged areas. This process devastates the habitat and removes people from their villages where they may have lived for several centuries.”

Sand mining

Not only do these vast sand mining operations have terrible consequences for the people of Sierra Leone, but they also have an abysmal effect on the environment and its wildlife.  This information in and of itself is cause enough for alarm, but the mining activities are only the extraction of the ore.

After the ores are mined, they must be refined in to titanium dioxide using a harsh and toxic process involving either sulfuric acid or chlorine, high temperatures and ample unpleasant waste products.

What’s the cause for health concern?

“Current safety regulations on the usage of the TiO2 pigment as an inactive ingredient additive in human food are based on legislation from 1969 and are arguably outdated.”

Titanium dioxide is a known inflammatory agent, bioaccumulative and a potential carcinogen.  As an external agent (in sunscreens, lotions and other hygeine products) it may cause skin irritation.  In its powdered form when aerated it may also cause lung disease and cancer.

Is it safe in food and beverage products?

“Based on findings from various studies on mammals, it appears that TiO2 fails to satisfy the 2 conditions on which the JECFA (1969) assessment was based: lack of absorption and lack of accumulation in body tissue. Based on the literature, TiO2 has clear potential for absorption by mammals after ingestion or injection, as well as for storage in various organs [..]”

When titanium dioxide is ingested it may cause systemic organ inflammation, including gastrointestinal, nervous, vascular system and even genetic damage.  Relatively small exposure over time can also cause potential health problems, because human organs and fatty issue store the mineral (as our bodies are not able to fully excrete it).

The FDA currently allows foods to contain titanium dioxide amounts of up to 1% of the item’s total weight.  The regulatory agency also classifies the material as inert and essentially harmless, even in the face of all the scientific and medical research that suggests otherwise.

How can one avoid this ingredient?

Titanium dioxide is ubiquitous as a food and beverage additive. Companies may add the mineral in its nanoparticle form without listing it as an ingredient.  Believe it or not, the FDA does not require food manufacturers to label the use of nanoparticles, despite pressure from the GAO to increase their scrutiny.  The agency only went so far as to acknowledge that:

“[..] evaluations of safety or effectiveness of FDA-regulated products that include nanomaterials or otherwise involve the application of nanotechnology should consider the unique properties and behaviors that nanomaterials may exhibit.”

In summary, one may not know whether or not a food product contains titanium dioxide nanoparticles or for that matter other nanomaterials, leaving the safest practice one can adopt to be avoiding processed foods as much as possible.  Otherwise there is no guarantee that the product is free of titanium dioxide.