Michelle Lee Photography/ShutterstockIf you’ve had coffee creamer, chewing gum, or a vanilla cupcake recently, there’s a good chance you’ve been eating titanium dioxide.
You might have heard about titanium dioxide because it’s used in sunscreens, paints, and plastics. So what in the world is it doing in your food? The chemical can make whites brighter in foods like ranch dressing, plus change the texture of some products, like chocolate and doughnuts. (In other stomach-turning food news, your sea salt probably contains plastic.)
Some people get nervous because the titanium dioxide in paints gives it a bad rap. The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health does say ultrafine titanium dioxide is a potential occupational carcinogen for humans. But breathing in titanium dioxide when you’re painting is totally different from when you eat it, says Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, LD, assistant professor in public health at the University of North Florida and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“It really is comparing apples to oranges,” says Dr. Wright. “It’s different forms and very different amounts. The food titanium dioxide is very different than what they put into paint and other chemicals.”
In fact, the titanium dioxide mostly got its cancer-causing reputation because it’s in the form of tiny particles—not because of a chemical response, says Hans Plugge, SM, MSc, senior toxicologist with 3E Company and American Chemical Society expert. “It irritates the lung lining,” he says. “Eventually it causes enough injury that it causes a cancer-like response.” (Eat these foods to keep your own lungs healthy.)
Still, some consumers don’t like the sound of it, which is why there’s been a movement to get the additive out of the ingredient lists. In 2015, Dunkin Donuts took titanium dioxide out of its powdered doughnut recipe and So Delicious removed it from its coconut milk creamers. One concern from other brands is that without the coloring chemical keeping creamer bright white, people might get grossed out or confused. For instance, a creamer that’s a muddier white could lead coffee drinkers to over-pour it into their drinks. Not good—find out how many calories there really are in a sugary, creamy coffee.
When it comes to your diet, the FDA concluded in 1966 it’s generally recognized as safe and says it’s fine in food, as long as it doesn’t make up more than one percent of the product’s weight. Still the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer deemed it a possible carcinogen for humans in 2010.
Before you start worrying about getting cancer from your cupcakes, though, Plugge says the IARC doesn’t differentiate between potential carcinogens for humans versus animals.
“They tend to make blanket statements based on animals,” he says. “There are a lot of chemicals that don’t do anything in rats but do something in humans and vice versa.”
But one recent study in the journal Scientific Reports is making some experts wonder if researchers should give titanium dioxide another look. In the study, rats that ingested titanium dioxide every day showed signs of a flared-up immune systems and pre-cancerous lesions. (Don’t miss these other 8 cancer-causing foods you should stop eating.)
If titanium dioxide produces that same inflammatory response in humans, there’s a good reason to avoid eating it, says Dr. Wright.
“From a nutritional standpoint, we’re really investigating what things in our diet can contribute to inflammation and what can decrease inflammation,” she says. After all, inflammation has been linked with major diseases, from heart conditions to diabetes. (Find out more about how inflammation causes heart attacks.) Still, just because lab rats get inflammation from a chemical doesn’t mean humans will—especially in the small amounts allowed in our foods.
Even though any food you eat is less than one percent titanium dioxide, Dr. Wright says it could still be possible to get excess amounts. The additive used to be mostly for gum and toothpaste, but now it’s branched out to coffee creamers and pastries. “When we get into excess amounts is where you run the risk of getting too much of these things generally recognized as safe,” she says. Learn the signs that you’re eating too many additives.
But Dr. Wright has a bigger reason to avoid titanium dioxide: Most foods with the additive are sweets. “Candies, cakes, and doughnuts I wouldn’t necessarily recommend—or have only occasionally in the diet—because of other issues like trans fats and sugars,” she says. “It’s another reason to stay away from some of these foods … and emphasize the foods we know can take down inflammation.” Start with these 30 foods proven to prevent cancer.