Apr 26, 2023

Petition urges U.S. FDA to ban food additive commonly found in candy

Titanium dioxide, a colouring agent, is commonly found in candy, cakes, cookies, desserts and snacks

Five U.S. public health advocacy groups are petitioning the Food And Drug Administration to follow Europe's lead and ban a common food additive and colour enhancer.

The compound in question, titanium dioxide, is also approved for use in Canada and is commonly found in candy, cakes, cookies, desserts and snacks.

While the compound was approved by the FDA in 1966 the agency has not reviewed it since 1973, despite recent research questioning the safety of the chemical's use in food products.

A Health Canada report issued last year, however, found that there "is no conclusive scientific evidence that the food additive (titanium dioxide) is a concern for human health."

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The petition to the FDA, signed by the Environmental Working Group, Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Center for Food Safety and Center for Environmental Health, is urging the agency to revoke the chemicals’ approval and engage in the most recent studies of the compound.

The 36-page document notes that titanium dioxide's approval was based on the belief that the compound is not absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and does not accumulate in the body, but recent research has found that isn't the case.

"We now know that very small particles can pass through the gastrointestinal tract and accumulate in the human body, something that the agency did not know or consider in 1973," the letter states, adding that the risks posed by nanoparticles have become "substantially clearer."

The current research indicates that the chemical is likely a neurotoxin and immunotoxin, and can damage genes and cause birth defects as it moves through the bloodstream and settles into organs. Previously, it was believed that the particles were quickly excreted but now it's understood the nanoparticles can remain in the body for years and accumulate.

"A chemical that builds up in the body and could harm the immune and nervous systems should not be in candies and treats marketed to children," Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at Environmental Working Group, said in a news release issued by food and health watchdog The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Benesh added that the EU's decision to ban titanium dioxide "should have set off alarm bells at the FDA."

"The agency has failed to take action. It shouldn't take a formal petition to get the agency to protect consumers," she said.

While the European Food Safety Authority's re-evaluation of titanium dioxide found it unsafe for human consumption, a recent Health Canada review reached a different conclusion.

A 2022 "State of the Science" report on titanium dioxide by Health Canada's Food Directorate acknowledged the EU ruling but noted its decision was based on uncertainties concerning the safety of the compound's nanoparticles. It did not "identify an immediate health concern" linked to titanium dioxide as a food additive.

Concerns related to the genotoxicity of titanium dioxide, which comes in many different forms, were largely based on variations of the compound that are not considered food-grade, according to Health Canada. Studies that did focus on food-grade titanium dioxide, broke the material down into smaller particles than would normally be found in food, the agency stated.

The report concluded that the available evidence suggests titanium dioxide is not a concern for human health, though it noted it may revisit its position as new information becomes available.

Despite those findings, two California Assemblymembers introduced a bill earlier this year to create a state-level ban on titanium dioxide, as well as red dye No. 3, potassium bromate and brominated vegetable oil, in food sold in the state. If passed, the bill would take effect on Jan. 1, 2025.

"It's great that states are starting to step up to protect consumers from toxic chemicals in candy, cookies and other foods, but we believe everyone — not just Californians — deserves those same protections," Thomas Galligan, principal scientist for food additives and supplements at CSPI said in a statement. "That's why we’re petitioning the FDA — so we can all enjoy safer products."

The petition is intended to force a review of the chemical, which proponents are hopeful will happen within 180 days. If the FDA opts to deem the compound unsafe, industry players, such as the Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association, will have a chance to respond.

Tom Neltner, senior director of safer chemicals at the Environmental Defense Fund and a co-author on the petition, told The Guardian that safer alternatives to titanium dioxide exist and since it is used simply for food colouring, it's not an essential ingredient.

"There's really no excuse to allow it to be used any longer," he said.

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