What You Should Know about Titanium Dioxide

We’ve seen the headlines about an ingredient with a part metal-, part chemical-sounding name: titanium dioxide. Food companies are responding to consumer inquiries about the use of the ingredient, and some companies are even taking steps to remove the ingredient from some products. We wondered…what exactly is titanium dioxide? Is it dangerous? Should we be on the lookout for this ingredient in the foods we eat?

We reached out to expert Paul Westerhoff, PhD, PE, BCEE, Professor & Vice Provost for Academic Research Programming, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, for some answers.

What is titanium dioxide and why is it used in food production?

Dr. Westerhoff: “Titanium dioxide is a common additive in many food, personal care, and other consumer products. It is sometimes used as a whitener and sometimes as an anti-caking agent (to prevent the product from clumping). Titanium dioxide also gives some products texture – it’s used in some chocolate to give it a smooth texture – and is used in doughnuts to provide color and texture. It can also be used to create abrasion, as is found in some toothpastes.”

What products contain titanium dioxide?

Dr. Westerhoff: “Titanium dioxide is most commonly found in candies, sweets and chewing gums. Among personal care items, it’s most commonly found in toothpaste and some sunscreen lotions.”

Is titanium dioxide safe for human consumption?

Dr. Westerhoff: “Although there is not a lot of information available on the risks associated with consumption of titanium dioxide, it is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Research conducted by Arizona State University analyzed numerous readily-available products for the presence of titanium dioxide, including powdered doughnuts, chewing gum, whipped frosting, vanilla pudding and chocolate bars. Our research found the presence of titanium dioxide in the products tested, and also found that up to 5 percent of the titanium dioxide in some products was in the form of nanoparticles. Toxicity studies on nanoparticles in titanium dioxide have mainly focused on risks associated with inhalation and not consumption.

Children are exposed to more titanium dioxide than adults due to diet. Their diets consist of more candies, sweets and gum, but this tends to change as children get older.”

Are there alternatives to titanium dioxide that food companies could use?

Dr. Westerhoff: “Other ingredients that could possibly be used in place of titanium dioxide include calcium phosphate and silica dioxide. I’m not aware of the specific alternative Dunkin’ Donuts plans to use for its powdered sugar doughnuts.

In addition to Dr. Westerhoff’s expert insight, we found this article that addressed our questions about titanium dioxide. Some key takeaways:

  • Titanium dioxide (not metal titanium) is an inactive, insoluble material that makes things look whiter – it’s in many products, including food, paper, paint and plastics.
  • The biggest concerns about titanium dioxide seem to be specific to nanoparticles, but one expert explained that “assuming one type [of nanoparticle] …is potentially harmful because of what another type does is the equivalent of avoiding apples because you’re allergic to oysters.”
  • Some studies demonstrate the potential for harm, but lack information on how much material and under what conditions significant harm could occur. Other studies show no effects. An expert summed this up: “It’s as if we’ve just discovered that paper can cause cuts, but we’re not sure yet whether this is a minor inconvenience or potentially life threatening.”
  • “More research is needed.”

The original article appeared in The Conversation and can be read here.

Additional Resources:

Weir, A., Westerhoff, P., Fabricius, L., Hristovski, K., von Goetz, N. “Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles in Food and Personal Care Products,” Environmental Science and Technology (2012)

Singh, G., Stephan, C., Westerhoff, P., Carlander, D., Duncan, T. “Measurement Methods to Detect, Characterize, and Quantify Engineered Nanomaterials in Foods,”Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety (2014)

Image: “IMG_8362_a.JPG” by dieraecherin 

  • Kao

    “Toxicity studies on nanoparticles in titanium dioxide have mainly focused on risks associated with inhalation and NOT consumption.”
    So yes.

    • joe smith

      That’s like saying it’s okay to eat arsenic, but just do’t inhale it. It’s ridiculous. A poison is a poison is a poison. And until we all call out these companies for poisoning us, they will continue doing it. Call them, tell them you will not longer purchase their products and you’ll see how quickly they stop using that chemical.

      • Sara Soden

        As I understood it, it’s not safe to inhale because of what the tiny particles can do to your lungs, not because it’s poison. Cinnamon can be deadly if inhaled, but is not poisonous. Same with water.

  • Hmmmm…. Good to know!

  • nic

    can I smell my gum that has titanium dioxide in it.

  • Shereen lorah

    Nadia, I was able to get off my antidepressants after starting a natural supplement. I feel better these last 2years than I did for 20 years! It balanced my hormones and body! So thankful for good health!

  • Patrick Turner

    i work at a titanium plant and have bern there about a month.they put me on the press and i handled the powder all day.i got bronchitis 3 days later and have had it a week also with the worst most consistently painful sore throat iv ever had.Theres somthing to this..Mark my words

  • Keith C.

    Both my children take ADHD medication and the ingredients list Titanium Dioxide! I am concerned albout the long term effects of ingesting these types of chemicals.