Is Your Child's Favorite Treat Safe to Eat?

Is Your Child's Favorite Treat Safe to Eat?

By Yehudit Garmaise

Tangy sour sticks, jumbo lollipops, and rainbow licorice may be your child’s favorite treat, but are the chemicals that create those enticing colors actually safe to eat?

A class-action lawsuit, filed July 14 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, argued that Mars Inc., the maker of Skittles candy had “long known of the health problems” caused by the food coloring additive titanium dioxide.

Thousands of foods, such as candy, chewing gum, bakery, sandwich spreads, and sauces contain titanium dioxide, to create a rainbow effect.

Even white products like cottage cheese, and ice cream often contain titanium dioxide to create a whitened effect. 

The additive is also used in a variety of nonfood items, such as certain medications, sunscreens, cosmetics, paints, and plastics, but many researchers say the chemical compound is toxic.

Since 1966, the US Food and Drug Administration has said that titanium dioxide in foods is safe, as long as the additive does not exceed 1% of the food’s weight, but regulators have trouble determining the amount of the chemical that food manufacturers use, New York Times reported.

As titanium dioxide is added to more and more products, studies published since the 1960s have raised questions about its safety. 

In 2015, researchers found that after ingestion, titanium dioxide is absorbed into the bloodstream, where it could then accumulate and potentially damage organs, such as the spleen, liver, and kidneys.  

In 2019, the French government planned to ban titanium dioxide by 2020 after researchers in 2017 linked titanium dioxide with increased risks of intestinal inflammation, cancer, and damage to the immune system. 

Just last year, another review of animal and human studies raised the possibility that titanium dioxide could play a role in inflammatory bowel diseases and colorectal cancer.

This year, after the European Food Safety Authority found that titanium dioxide could damage people’s DNA and lead to cancer, the European Union banned the additive.

Britain and Canada, continued to allow titanium dioxide in food, and American researchers seem unsure whether to ban the chemical coloring agent.

Pierre Herckes, a professor of chemistry at the School of Molecular Sciences at Arizona State University who was an author of a 2014 study on titanium dioxide, said that parents should remember that sweet treats and candies, which are mostly eaten by children, contain some of the highest levels of titanium dioxide, which gives reason for concern, given that children have smaller bodies, but are consuming higher relative doses.

“If there is damage to the DNA, classical carcinogenicity, that is cumulative over time,” Dr. Herckes said. “When you are exposed to that in the younger years, it can hit you in later years.”

Food companies in the US are not required to include titanium dioxide on their ingredient lists, but for Americans who want to steer clear of the potentially dangerous additives, their best bet is to choose foods that do not seem to require chemical food colorings.

Food additives like titanium dioxide were generally used to make “junk food look healthy and taste better,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of food studies and public health at New York University. The products that contain food colorings “are not foods that a nutritionist would be likely to recommend except in very small quantities.”

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