E171 is listed on food packaging as a supplement, but it is also found in many cosmetics, medicines, and even road surfaces: titanium dioxide is all around us. But it can be carcinogenic.
Titanium dioxide (titanium dioxide) fascinates customers: when E171 is added to cakes, desserts, ready-made soups, pastries and sauces, they all look brighter, fresher and crispier, Deutsche Welle reports.
The industry takes advantage of the strong brightness and good coating properties of the white pigment, which is also found in many cosmetic products, such as toothpaste, where it is hidden under the designation CI77891. We also find it in a number of medicines, sunscreens, glues and rubber products, in varnishes and paints, even in concrete and paper.
The production of titanium dioxide is a huge business – the world production is between 4 and 5 million tons, of which in Europe alone a little more than one million tons are produced. However, the food industry on the European market will have to abandon this supplement altogether, because after many years of negotiations, the European Commission banned EU food from containing titanium dioxide in mid-January 2022 – due to its possible carcinogenic effect.
France banned the use of this ingredient in food as early as 2020. As a result, a number of food producers prudently refused to use the contested supplement, in part or in full.
The European Commission’s proposal to ban the ingredient was submitted in the spring of 2021 on the basis of a revised recommendation of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). And among EFSA, doubts about the security of E171 prevailed. In the end, no definitive conclusions were drawn on the toxic nature of the ingredient, but at the same time the possibility that it may adversely affect human hereditary material or cause cancer was not ruled out. Doubts, therefore, were not completely dispelled, which is why EFSA recommended abandoning the use of titanium dioxide in food.
How dangerous is E171 really?
It has been suspected for years that titanium dioxide may be carcinogenic. In 2017, French scientists proved with experimental mice that regular intake of E171 damages the immune system and causes inflammation of the intestines. In these experiments, it was shown that titanium dioxide crosses the intestinal barrier and acts as a nanoparticle in the blood. It remains unclear whether it can cross the blood-brain barrier. It is permeable to nutrients, but not to most harmful substances or pathogens. The blood-brain barrier serves to protect the brain.
While the European food safety institutions have strong doubts about the harmful effects of titanium dioxide, the most important producers of this substance in Europe are defending the exact opposite view. They argue that EFSA’s position is based on unrealistic assumptions and that the materials used in the tests were not representative.
Danger of inhalation of particles
The ban on titanium dioxide announced by the European Commission will take effect in half a year, but only applies to food products. In the rest it will be possible to invest in the future. However, the widely used emollient probably poses health risks not only in food.
In 2017, the European Chemicals Risk Assessment Committee (ECHA), for example, described titanium dioxide as ‘presumably carcinogenic by inhalation’. This happens, for example, when spraying with varnishes and paints containing titanium dioxide, or when using sunscreen sprays. In road construction, the substance is used, for example, in the form of grains, which are used in concrete pavement. The goal is to convert titanium dioxide to water-soluble nitrate under the influence of sunlight, which is then washed away by rain. This reduces harmful substances in the air. To date, it has not been definitively established whether inhalation of titanium dioxide is carcinogenic or not. Opinions on the issue remain diametrically opposed.
A ban not only on food?
The chemical industry fears the European Commission may extend the ban on the use of titanium dioxide to products outside the food industry. In any case, the ban on E171 in food will not put an end to fierce controversy.