TFrom candies and pastries to cheese and gum, here’s the hidden ingredients used as whiteners in food arrays. It is called titanium dioxide, and when used in the United States, it is banned in the EU as a potential carcinogen.
This additive, also called E171, contains other chemicals that are banned from food in the European Union but allowed in the United States.
These include azodicarbonamide, a whitening agent found in foods such as bread, bagels, pizza and pastries in the United States, which has been banned in the EU for more than a decade. Known as the “yoga mat” chemical because it is often found in foamed plastics, it has been linked to asthma and respiratory problems in extra workers and, when baked, has been linked to cancer in rat studies.
Potassium bromate, an oxidizing agent often found in bread and flour and linked to studies of animals with kidney and thyroid cancer, has been banned in the EU since 1990 but is still commonly used in the United States. Brominated vegetable oil is also banned in the EU but in the US it is used as an emulsifier in citrus sodas and beverages. Prolonged exposure is associated with headaches, memory loss, and impaired coordination.
The Food and Drug Administration classifies these food chemicals, and many others banned by the EU as “generally recognized as safe.”
Chemical safety processes in the EU and the US work quite differently. Where European policy tends to be cautious – trying to prevent harm before it happens – the US is generally more reactive.
There is a lot of “wait and see” approach, said Tatiana Santos, chemical manager at the European Environment Bureau (EEB), a network of environmental civil society organizations. “The United States often waits until the damage is done and the EU tries to stop it to a certain extent. Most of the time the United States seems to support the market rather than security.
The EU’s decision to phase out titanium dioxide follows a re-evaluation of food additive safety conducted by the European Food Safety Association (EFSA), an agency that provides independent scientific advice to the EU on food-related risks.
EFSA scientists examined about 12,000 scientific publications. They were particularly interested in recent research into the “genotoxicity” of titanium dioxide nanoparticles – their ability to damage DNA and lead to cell mutations, potentially causing cancer. In animal studies, nanoparticles have been found to affect intestinal microorganisms, which can trigger diseases such as inflammation of the intestines and intestines and colorectal cancer.
The EFSA’s expert panel on food additives and flavorings cannot rule out concerns about the genotoxicity of nanoparticles that accumulate in the body over time, which means it will no longer be considered safe as a food additive.
Unlike the EU, the US does not have agencies like EFSA that offer independent scientific evaluation of new chemicals on the market. And while the EU is constantly updating its methods and procedures for evaluating new chemicals, some experts say the US system, established more than half a century ago, needs to be updated.
EFSA, funded by the EU, was created in 2002 to determine existing and emerging risks in the food chain. European producers interested in using the new chemicals must undergo a scientific evaluation of the EFSA, which analyzes the production process, proposed experiments and toxicity to humans, among other factors. The EFSA then provides scientific advice to the European Commission, member state officials and the European Parliament.
While there has already been criticism of the conflict of interest, an EFSA spokesman said the body had “a rigid set of internal mechanisms and procedures to protect the freedom of our science.”
In the United States, the Food Extra Amendment was created in 1958, following public concern about the safety of food chemicals. All new food chemicals were required to be evaluated and approved by the FDA, although the chemicals were not already re-evaluated in the food system prior to the amendment.
In the case of additives such as titanium dioxide, manufacturers apply to the FDA for approval by submitting evidence that the substance is safe for its intended use. The FDA evaluates the application, and will authorize the additive if the data provided indicates that the substance is safe to use.
This is a “clear conflict of interest,” said Thomas Galigan, chief scientist for food additives and supplements at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit watchdog and consumer advocacy group. “Of course [companies] I want to say it’s safe. “
An FDA spokesman said that in addition to the evidence from the manufacturer, the organization would “conduct its own review of the literature and other relevant information.”
In addition to the lack of independent assessments, the FDA’s guidelines on how to conduct these food safety assessments have not been updated since 2007.
“While these chemicals are being evaluated, they are not using modern science in those evaluations, while the EU regularly updates their guidelines,” Galigan said. “There has been a lot of research in toxicology over the last 15 years that has not been implemented by the FDA.”
Galligan said it includes a better understanding of how different chemicals interact and how exposure to multiple chemicals can have a more significant effect on one’s health than on one’s individual contact.
Most serious diseases, such as cancer, are multifaceted, said Santos of the EEB. “You can get cancer for many different reasons and one of them is the risk of carcinogenesis. We are exposed to hundreds of chemicals on a daily basis.
A FDA spokesman said the organization’s “safety assessment of food additives and color additives is based on the most recent science available, and includes information made public by other regulatory bodies.”
This indicates that the current evidence suggests that titanium dioxide is safe. “Available safety studies do not address the safety concerns associated with the use of titanium dioxide as a dye additive,” an FDA spokesman said.
The American Chemical Council (ACC), the industry body representing the American chemical companies, said in a statement: “The EFSA assessment does not conclude that E171 is genotoxic but identifies uncertainties that require further investigation into the effects of the substance.” The union added that the industry was “investing in new science to generate data to confirm the safety of the E171”.
The global market for titanium dioxide was valued at. 17.19 billion in 2020 and is projected to grow by more than 6% over the next five years.
The EU’s phase-out of titanium dioxide falls in the middle of a chemical overhaul. Up to 12,000 chemicals found in food packaging, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, baby products, pesticides and additives will be banned in the next five years. Block is promising to outlaw chemicals related to cancer and endocrine disorders in an effort called “Great Detox”.
As the EU continues its sweep of chemical regulation, some hope the FDA will be pushed to do the same. “If there’s a concern that these rules could hurt the market, look at Europe,” Santos said. “It has banned or regulated thousands of chemicals on the market and we are still the most competitive in the world.”
Santos also noted that strong research legislation could actually encourage innovation, “putting pressure on companies to invent when chemicals are banned.” She said: “Why not design chemicals that are safe in the first place, so that they do not need to be banned in the future?”