Are bowling pins toxic? Experts weigh in on lawsuit

Key points to remember

  • A new lawsuit accuses Mars, the parent company of Skittles, of including a toxic ingredient.
  • The ingredient of concern is titanium dioxide, an agent that helps make foods and other items (like toothpaste and paper) shine brighter.
  • The FDA allows the use of titanium dioxide in certain amounts, and experts say there’s still a lot to learn before it can be considered toxic.

Does any particular ingredient make Skittles “unfit for human consumption?” That’s what plaintiff Jenile Thames claims in a class action lawsuit filed against Mars Corporation earlier this month.

The lawsuit says Mars failed to disclose the health risks of titanium dioxide, a compound used as a brightening agent in Skittles. Titanium oxide is what makes Skittles shiny. It has the same effect on paint.

Understandably, candy lovers and parents of candy-loving children are now in turmoil over these claims. Are our beloved rainbow candies really poisonous and dangerous for human consumption? Or is the titanium dioxide level negligible and not of concern?

We turned to experts to get to the bottom of things.

What is titanium dioxide?

You may have never heard of titanium dioxide before. But if you’ve ever enjoyed coffee creamer in your cup of joe, sucked on a ring as a kid, or eaten a bowl of Jell-O, you’ve probably consumed this chemical without realizing it.

Titanium dioxide is used as a food pigment and anti-caking agent. Because this powder can enhance the white color, it is found in a wide variety of popular foods, household items, and personal care items, such as makeup, sunscreen, and toothpaste. Titanium dioxide is also widely used in many commercial products, including paint, plastics, and paper.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has expressed concern regarding the use of this product, as its potential to cause chromosomal damage or genotoxicity cannot be excluded. But in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to consider it safe for human consumption.

These differing positions of the two agencies may be of concern, but a key detail to bear in mind is that EFSA does not state that the ingestion of titanium dioxide will be lead to genotoxicity. On the contrary, he cannot rule out the possibility of it happening.

“Different countries may choose to regulate certain ingredients, but that does not necessarily mean they are harmful,” Kacie Barnes, MCN, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian based in Dallas, Texas, told Verywell. “There is no strong evidence showing that titanium dioxide is a known toxin at the amounts found in foods in the United States”

Wondering if your food contains titanium dioxide? Check the ingredient list on the food label. According to FDA regulations, titanium dioxide, like any other coloring or food ingredient, must be labeled on any food product.

Should titanium dioxide be avoided?

It’s certainly tempting to rummage through your pantry and throw out anything with a speck of titanium dioxide in it. After all, if this product is truly toxic and can cause chromosomal damage, who would want to be exposed to any amount of it?

But experts encourage people to take deep breaths. Eliminating the compound from your diet is probably unnecessary.

“First and foremost, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists titanium dioxide as maybe carcinogenic”, Taylor Wallace, PhD, SCF, FACN, a food and nutrition scientist and director and chief executive of Think Healthy Group, told Verywell. He explained that the categorization is based on rodent studies after very high exposures, which likely doesn’t correlate with human intake of titanium dioxide.

“Remember, a tenet of toxicology is that everything is toxic; the dose is what matters,” Wallace said.

Wallace added that some compounds can be toxic to animals, not humans. For example, while eating chocolate and grapes are generally safe for humans, they can be deadly for dogs. Just because titanium dioxide is linked to certain outcomes in rodents doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the same in humans.

“Titanium dioxide has a long history of safe use. We’ve been using it for decades, even over a hundred years,” Wallace said.

Think about the big picture

Just like Wallace, nutrition expert Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CPT, creator of ShawSimpleSwaps.com, don’t worry about Skittles. In fact, it’s a must-have Christmas gift for her husband every Christmas.

“Honestly, eating something as healthy as a carrot can lead to toxicity when eaten in excess,” Shaw told Verywell. “I advise people to think about their whole diet – what they do regularly – and not just a few sweets eaten once in a while.”

At the end of the line ? Whether or not you eat a candy made with titanium dioxide, your candy consumption should be minimal. No one eats sweets expecting them to provide nutritional benefits.

Removing the titanium dioxide from Skittles will still leave you with a candy made with corn syrup, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, and artificial colors, none of which are healthy.

If you’re a Skittles lover, keeping your intake to a reasonable amount seems safe, especially if most of your diet is balanced and nutrient-dense.

What this means for you

If you love eating Skittles, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to quit altogether. Simply limit your intake and do your best to have a nutritious diet otherwise.

Correction – August 1, 2022: This article has been updated to clarify that the FDA requires companies to list titanium dioxide as an ingredient on food labels.

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