Titanium dioxide e171 in food

What is Titanium Dioxide?

Michael Smith

Most people have probably never heard of titanium dioxide, although it’s common in a wide range of foods they eat and everyday products they use. For the manufacturers of molds for gummy bears and their customers who use them, titanium oxide merits extra attention. Let’s look at what titanium dioxide is, what it does, and the concerns over its use.

What is titanium dioxide in food, and why is it there?

A naturally occurring mineral, titanium dioxide is a white powder with a slightly sweet taste that serves as a whitening, brightening, and thickening agent. It’s often titanium dioxide that gives candy a smooth, glossy look. Titanium dioxide whitens and brightens products such as chewing gum, cake mix, non-dairy creamer, and icing. It improves the texture of cheese and yogurt, thickens sauces and dressings, and enhances the color of ice cream. Titanium dioxide is also a preservative that helps products stay fresh.

Big Brands Use Titanium Dioxide

The company Label Insights, which provides insights on food label data, has cataloged around 11,000 food and beverage products sold in the U.S. that contain titanium dioxide. More than half of these products fall into the categories of candy, snack cakes, and cookies. Titanium dioxide is used by some of America’s most popular candy brands, including Starbursts, Nice! mints, Swedish Fish, Sour Patch Kids, and Trolli gummies. It's what makes the tops of Hostess cupcakes shine and why Chips Ahoy! cookies and Little Debbie baked goods last so long. You’ll find titanium dioxide in Jell-O, Great Value ice cream, Lucerne cottage cheese, Beyond Meat’s chicken plant-based tenders, and lots of other popular brands.

Skittles Candy Lawsuit

One big brand recently made news because of the controversial ingredient. In July 2022, the Mars Corporation faced a proposed class action lawsuit over the presence of titanium dioxide in their Skittles. The lawsuit cited Mars' failure to disclose titanium dioxide on the Skittles packaging and warn consumers about its potential dangers. The plaintiff, Jenile Thames of San Leandro, California, alleged that Skittles are "unfit for human consumption." He bought the candy at his local QuikStop convenience store and said he wouldn’t have done so had he known Skittles contain titanium dioxide.

Thames quietly dismissed the lawsuit a few months later. But the initial headlines the Skittles titanium dioxide lawsuit generated shed light on how little the public knows about the prevalence of the ingredient that’s in so much of what they eat. And the withdrawal of the lawsuit doesn’t mean Skittles is in the clear yet; the suit was dismissed "without prejudice," which means that Thames could sue again. And could win. 

In a landmark 2005 case, the California Supreme Court cleared the way for consumers to file class-action lawsuits over additives in food. In that case, the Court ruled consumers could sue when an additive, used to make salmon more pink, wasn’t disclosed on the packaging. A series of similar lawsuits followed.

Titanium dioxide tampons?

It’s true. Procter & Gamble’s L. brand tampons use titanium dioxide to whiten the tampon string. Tampax, Kotex, and other tampon brands also use it as a bleaching agent, and titanium dioxide is no stranger to a range of other personal hygiene products. It’s used as an abrasive in toothpaste, helping to remove plaque and stains from teeth and freshen breath. Titanium dioxide is also in soap, body wash, and shampoo for its ability to form a lather to help clean and condition the skin and hair. In deodorants and antiperspirants, the ingredient provides a protective barrier and absorbs moisture.

Haribo Gummy Bears and Their European Problem

While not a household name in America, Haribo is a well-known brand globally. The German confectionery company created the first gummy candy back in 1960. Haribo’s signature candy, Haribo Teeth, looks like human teeth, relying on titanium dioxide to make them appear more realistic. These tooth-shaped gummies are popular in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, and several other European countries, where the brand ran into an issue: the European Union banned titanium dioxide as a food additive.

The decision to ban titanium dioxide, which the U.K. has rejected, stems from a 2021 assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The agency classified titanium dioxide as a possible carcinogen and said the ingredient may be linked to genotoxicity (damage to DNA). But the EFSA’s findings are more speculative than reliance on hard facts. The agency has admitted that there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that titanium dioxide is a health risk when consumed in food. They just couldn’t rule out the possibility that the ingredient is harmful in food. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved titanium dioxide as a food additive and considers it safe to consume.

The Pros and Cons of Titanium Dioxide in Gummies

So should a professional gummy recipe include titanium dioxide? In the pro column, titanium dioxide gives candy such as mushroom gummies a vibrant and attractive appearance. It also helps to improve the texture and consistency, offering a creamier feel. Plus, titanium dioxide acts as a preservative. The final products come out of their gummy molds brighter, creamier, and longer-lasting.

On the con side, it may be a case of "we don’t know what we don’t know." Most responsible gummy makers would probably feel better if the EFSA had ruled out the possibility of the ingredient’s harm to human health. And while the FDA says it is safe, the agency has limited titanium dioxide's use to 1% of the food’s weight. In large quantities, titanium dioxide is potentially harmful, so it may not be the best option when considering how to make gummies.

If your business is making weed molds or baker molds of any kind, the products with titanium dioxide that go into these molds matter. Titanium dioxide is considered safe and legal in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and in other countries. However, as the European Food Safety Authority notes, further scientific investigation could change that one day.

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