EFSA OKs titanium dioxide but nano concerns remain

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/Halfpoint
© iStock/Halfpoint

Related tags: Titanium dioxide, European food safety authority

EFSA has said white food colouring titanium dioxide poses no health concerns despite data gaps, but campaigners have raised doubts over the safety of nanoparticles.

While the European Food safety Authority (EFSA) panel of experts was unable to set an acceptable daily limit (ADI) for titanium dioxide due to data limitations, it concluded nonetheless that current levels of dietary exposure do not pose any concern to consumers’ health.

However, EFSA called for research to fill these data gaps, particularly on the potential effects on the reproductive system which had been flagged as a risk by “a small number”​ of studies.

“The Panel considered that, on the database currently available and the considerations on the absorption of titanium dioxide, the margins of safety calculated from the no observed adverse effects levels (NOAEL) of 2,250 mg TiO2 per kilo bodyweight per day […] would not be of concern.”

Listed as E 171 in Europe, titanium dioxide (TiO2)​ is used to whiten or give an opaque, cloudy effect in foods and is mainly used in confectionery, bakery and sauces. It is also a principal component in sun cream as it reflects UV light.

The full opinion can be read here​.

Nano concerns

Titanium dioxide has been put under the safety spotlight in recent years due to safety questions over industry use of nanosized particles​, but EFSA says this does not apply to the additive when used for food.

“While there are no specific limits on the particle size of titanium dioxide used as a food additive, food-grade titanium dioxide consists mainly of larger granules, with limited nanoparticle content,” ​it says.

“Food-grade titanium dioxide is not considered a nanomaterial under the current European Commission Recommendation on the definition of nanomaterial but it may contain up to 3.2% nanoparticles (less than 100 nanometres in size) by weight.”

However the soundness of this EU definition has been questioned by some, such as senior food policy officer at consumer rights organisation BEUC, Camille Perrin, who asked whether on social media whether it was "flawed​".

Earlier this year French environmental NGO Agir pour l’Environnement conducted tests and found titanium dioxide nanoparticles in three products​ -  LU Napolitain chocolate biscuits, Malabar tutti-frutti flavoured bubble gum (both by Mondelēz) and William Saurin tinned veal stew. It also found silica dioxide nanoparticles in Carrefour guacamole mix.

Nanotechnology refers to engineering conducted on a nanoscale with particles invisible to the naked eye - one nanometre is one billionth of a metre, or 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

It has potential applications in many different sectors and for food could hold promise in salt, sugar and fat reduction, flavour enhancement and food colouring, but safety concerns have been raised. EFSA has said in the past that nanomaterials “may manifest toxic effects differently from the conventional forms”.

According to a Commission recommendation​ ​dating from 2011, a compound containing at least 50% nanoparticles ranging from 1-100 nanometres is considered to be nanomaterial.

An updated EU definition of nanomaterials​ is expected this autumn.

A spokesperson for the NGO said: “All four food products tested contained significant quantities of nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silica (dioxide), which have not been tested or approved for consumption by the European regulator. These products should have been labelled as nano according to the European regulation on food information to consumers.”

However, Mondelēz told FoodNavigator at the time of the report the nanoparticles were not “engineered nanomaterial​” and therefore nano labelling requirements do not apply.

Agir pour l’Environnement is calling on the French government to end to the use of nanomaterials in food products until further food safety checks have been carried out, and its petition​ has so far attracted over 23,500 signatures.

Ongoing re-evaluations

EFSA has been reassessing the safety of 41 food colours with updated data and evidence since 2009.

As a result of these re-evaluations, EFSA has lowered the ADI for a number of food colours - quinoline yellow (E 104), sunset yellow (E 110) and ponceau red (E 124) -  and redefined exposure limits for a group of caramel colours (E 150).

Ruud Woutersen, vice-chair of EFSA’s Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources Added to Food (ANS) and chair of the working group tasked with the re-evaluation of food colours, called the completion of the food colour re-evaluations “an important milestone” ​for the food safety authority but added there was still a considerable number of food additives to be re-evaluated by 2020.

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