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What is titanium dioxide? Skittles lawsuit highlights an ingredient that’s in much more than candy

A lawsuit alleges that the colorful treats include a toxin that is “unfit for human consumption.”

What is titanium dioxide? Skittles lawsuit highlights an ingredient that’s in much more than candy
[Source Images: Wikimedia Commons]

Skittles’s “taste the rainbow” motto is getting a dark new meaning in the wake of a lawsuit alleging the dangers of a little-known ingredient: titanium dioxide, an artificial chemical additive that gives the fruity candy its fun and bright coloring.

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A class-action complaint filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California claims that the use of titanium dioxide makes the rainbow candy “unfit for human consumption,” and that Mars, the food and pet care company that owns Skittles, failed to warn consumers about the potential dangers of ingesting the toxin.  

“Based on Defendant’s omissions, a reasonable consumer would expect that the Product can be safely purchased and consumed as marketed and sold,” the complaint, filed on behalf of California resident Jenile Thames, reads. “However, the Products are not safe and pose a significant health risk to unsuspecting consumers.”

In 2016, Mars announced its commitment to removing all artificial colors from food products over the course of five years. Following the company’s original statement, Mars issued a specific clarification on the use of titanium dioxide in its human food products, stating that the toxin—one of the most common chemicals used to engineer nanomaterials in food—would be among the artificial colorants removed. Studies show that, even in small or accumulating quantities, ingesting titanium dioxide includes risks of pathological lesions of the liver, spleen, kidneys, and brain. 

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Now, six years later, Skittles still contain titanium dioxide. Also known as TiO2, it can be found listed as an active ingredient for Skittles produced in the United States. In Europe, Skittles are made with an alternative recipe due to the European Commission’s phase-out of TiO2 as a colorant in food, which will go into full effect August 7.  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still permits the use of titanium dioxide as a color additive so long as the toxin does not surpass 1% of a food’s total mass. According to the lawsuit filed against Mars, other brightly colored candy, like Sour Patch Kids, Swedish Fish, and Nerds, are made without use of the chemical.  

According to Mars, Skittles products remain compliant under FDA regulations. “While we do not comment on pending litigation, our use of titanium dioxide complies with FDA regulations,” a company spokesperson told Fast Company.  

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Beyond artificial candy coloring, titanium dioxide is often used as a whitener or “shine” agent in products like coffee creamers, baking and cake decorations, milk products, and pastries. The toxin is also commonly used in over-the-counter products and cosmetics as a color-enhancer, including sunscreen, toothpaste and lipstick.  

While the FDA continues to allow the use of TiO2 in human-ingested products, pet retailers have taken steps to ban the toxin. Petco, for example, lists titanium dioxide as one of the artificial colorings that do not meet its nutritional standards, banning the sale of most pet foods that list the ingredient.

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