"We want to ban the use of this food additive in France by the end of the year," Secretary of State to the Minister for the Ecological and Solidarity Transition, Brune Poirson, told French national Le Parisien last week.
French policymakers have already prepared an amendment to the draft law as part of the General States of the Food Industry that allows it, “if necessary”, to ban titanium dioxide and its use in food by the end of 2018.
The additive has no nutritional value and “its only virtue is aesthetic”, the government said.
Last week Poirson met with the head of Verquin Confiseur, a French confectionery manufacturer based in Tourcoing that in January last year voluntarily committed to removing the additive from its portfolio.
Manufacturing 10% of candy in France, Verquin Confiseur is the country’s biggest independent confectioner and the third largest actor on the French market.
Listed as E 171 in Europe, titanium dioxide is a colouring, mainly used in sweets, chewing gum, bakery and sauces to give a white, opaque or cloudy effect.
It is also a principal component in sun cream because it reflects UV light, and is used in toothpaste and paint.
However, the UN's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified it as a possible human carcinogen.
It can be nanoparticle- or microparticle-sized. Nanomaterials offer many new food industry applications - for instance they can make products creamier without the need to increase the fat content, intensify flavours and show when food begins to go off - but the long-term health effects are unknown.
According to a 2012 study, it is one of the five most common engineered nanomaterials used in daily consumer products, including food.
The minister also praised other manufacturers that have phased out the colouring substance, including Lutti, Carambar & Co and Super U.
Retailers Carrefour and Picard have also removed the additive.
Poirson said: "We must question the real utility of a substance whose only interest is to make food whiter than white while serious doubts remain on the health risks associated with its consumption.
“The government is determined and that is why I wanted to highlight the best practices of pioneering companies that have not waited and have already chosen to remove titanium dioxide from their products. "
“Phasing out E171 and its use from the market is, in concrete terms, about protecting French people. And this is what our government is committed to doing,” she tweeted on Friday.
Michelle Maynard, executive director of the Food Additives and Ingredients Association (FAIA), told FoodNavigator that functionally-equivalent alternatives to the colouring are hard to come by.
"Titanium dioxide possesses quite unique properties, as its refractive index gives it a high level of opacity and whiteness, which other materials do not have. Other techniques for imparting opacity and whiteness to food products are being sought by food manufacturers, but they will not be as technically effective as titanium dioxide," she said.
"FAIA is closely monitoring the regulatory situation related to titanium dioxide, and have member companies that are actively involved in the ongoing discussions at EU level."
Campaign group Agir Pour l’Environnement welcomed the government’s decision but called on it to widen the scope of the ban to cover nano-sized titanium dioxide used in drugs and cosmetic products.
In February this year, the French government asked the European Commission to suspend the use of titanium dioxide and to re-evaluate its impacts.
The Commission reacted by asking EFSA to provide an opinion on four separate scientific studies that raised a red flag on the additive’s safety, and to indicate whether these studies merit “re-opening” the existing opinion, which dates from 2016 and found no genotoxic or carcinogenic concerns but highlighted several data gaps. EFSA scientists are due to publish this latest opinion by the end of the month.