Titanium Dioxide is a white powdered chemical compound that provides bright white pigmentation and is used as a food additive. On 6th May, 2021, the European Food Safety Commission published its updated safety assessment on titanium dioxide as a food additive and proposed a ban on its usage in the food industry.
Titanium dioxide is used to add white colour to foods, such as baked goods and sandwich spreads, to soups, sauces, salad dressing, and food supplements. It was first approved for use in food by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1966(labelled as INS171), then by the European Union in 1969 (labelled as E171). Ever since, the chemical has undergone several re-evaluations by the EU in 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2012. France banned the usage of titanium dioxide in 2020. This pushed several lobbyist groups including NGOs to urge the European Commission to prohibit the substance across the EU. Although this compound has been used for a long time in food products, 2022 has seen the approval of a landmark decision, with the European Commission placing a complete ban on its usage in food.
Why was it banned?
The European Food Safety Authority periodically re-evaluates the food additives that have been approved for use in the past. Previously in its 2016 evaluation, the commission had highlighted the uncertainty around the characterization of material used as a food additive in particular with respect to size and particle size distribution of titanium dioxide used as E 171. In 2019 too, the EFSA reiterated the uncertainties and data gaps previously identified. But after conducting a review of all the available scientific evidence, the EFSA in autumn 2021 initiated a proposal for placing a complete ban on it citing concerns regarding its genotoxicity. Genotoxicity refers to the ability of a chemical substance to damage DNA, the genetic material of cells. As genotoxicity may lead to carcinogenic effects, it is essential to assess the potential genotoxic effect of a substance to conclude on its safety. The ingredient has also been linked to negative health consequences like damage to intestinal flora and when ingested in the form of very small nanoparticles it may even lead to cancer. The authority stated that since they did not have sufficient data to calculate a safe daily intake level of titanium dioxide, it moved to enact a ban.
What happens next?
Food companies that use titanium dioxide currently will be allowed a six-month phase-out period. During this time, companies will need to find ways to reformulate products to keep them in circulation. At the same time, replacing titanium dioxide has its own challenges. As titanium dioxide is highly versatile in application, any sort of replacement will be limited to certain applications and may also be limited to certain geographic regions. For instance, titanium dioxide’s great draw is its opacity which it keeps after heating and its characteristic bright white colour. The new solution might not be as opaque as before and overdosing food to produce the desired effect might completely change the product. Reformulating also means extra costs for manufacturers, which means increased prices.
In general, people might be willing to pay higher for a healthier alternative but given the versatility of titanium dioxide, it isn’t easy to replicate the chemical entirely.
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