Public health groups urge FDA to cancel approval of titanium dioxide in food

Donuts with white icing and creme filling

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A coalition of five public health advocacy organizations – the Environmental Working Group, Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Center for Food Safety and Center for Environmental Health - petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to revoke its approval to use the harmful color additive titanium dioxide in food.

Nanoparticles of the chemical are likely to accumulate where they may harm the immune and nervous systems. Titanium dioxide is found in potentially thousands of foods marketed to children.

“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,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at EWG.

The Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act does not require the FDA to regularly reassess the risks of chemicals it has approved for use in food. So decades may pass without agency reassessment of the safety of chemicals like titanium dioxide. 

The FDA approved titanium dioxide for use in food in 1966 and last reviewed its safety in food in 1973, when it concluded it was safe. But the FDA approval was based on the belief that titanium dioxide does not accumulate in the body. The most recent science shows that titanium dioxide nanoparticles can build up in the body.

The petition cites the European Food Safety Authority’s reevaluation of titanium dioxide, which resulted in a declaration that the additive could no longer be considered safe for human consumption.

“Europe banned synthetic titanium dioxide last year because the chemical’s nanoparticles can accumulate in the body — an outcome that may be linked to toxic effects on the immune system and the brain,” said Tom Neltner, senior director, safer chemicals for the Environmental Defense Fund, which also signed the petition. 

“The FDA should have conducted a formal and transparent reassessment of the evidence, but it did not,” Neltner said.

“As a result, we now submit this petition to force that review and hope the agency can meet the required 180 days deadline for a decision, as laid out in the statute,” he added.

“The EU decision to ban titanium dioxide should have set off alarm bells at the FDA, but the agency has failed to take action. It shouldn’t take a formal petition to get the agency to protect consumers,” said Benesh.  

EWG and the other groups are urging the FDA to do its job by revoking the allowed use of titanium dioxide as a color additive in food.

While the FDA fails to act, some state lawmakers are stepping in to protect consumers from a few of the most harmful food additives on the market.

In February, California Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D-San Fernando Valley) and Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Berkeley) introduced a bill that would create a state-level ban on titanium dioxide and four other food chemicals in food sold in the state.

“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,” said Thomas Galligan, principal scientist for food additives and supplements at Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

“That’s why we’re petitioning the FDA – so we can all enjoy safer products,” Galligan said.

More information about titanium dioxide and other food chemicals of concern can be found in EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Chemicals and Food Additives State of the Science report, as well as CSPI’s Chemical Cuisine guide to food additives. 


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Media note: Here are additional quotes from experts. 

Sue Chiang, food program director, Center for Environmental Health 

Because titanium dioxide has no nutritive or preservative value and is used for a purely cosmetic function, to brighten other colors in food, it makes no sense for the FDA to continue to allow a DNA-damaging chemical to be used in foods in the U.S., especially since many of these foods are eaten by children.


Jaydee Hanson, policy director, Center for Food Safety 

The Center for Food Safety has co-chaired the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue committee on nanotechnology. Our European partners note that European nations and companies are recognizing that changes in the ways that titanium dioxide is processed mean that a large portion of titanium dioxide is now in the nanoscale. U.S. companies that the Center for Food Safety has spoken with acknowledge that in Europe they are already removing titanium dioxide from their products. The FDA should require the companies to do likewise with products they sell in the U.S.

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