Skittles: Colourful, sweet and deadly?

04 Nov 2023 10:43am
Picture taken from Skittles' Facebbok
Picture taken from Skittles' Facebbok

Are you a fan of Skittles? Do you savour the joy of selecting, picking, and relishing each vibrant hue individually? Skittles hold a special place in the nostalgic memories of childhood and teenage years for many.

Resembling their chocolatey cousins, M&M’s, in appearance, Skittles carve out a unique niche for themselves in the world of confections.

However, you may need to take a second look at your favourite candy following confirmation that one of its key ingredients is toxic item known as titanium dioxide.

The lawsuit

Back in July last year, a lawsuit was filed in a northern California federal court alleging that the Skittles candies, which boast the slogan “taste the rainbow” on account of their many colours, contain a “known toxin” called titanium dioxide, rendering them “unfit for human consumption”.

Jenile Thames, a resident of San Leandro, filed suit against Mars Inc, the confection company that produces Skittles, seeking class-action status and alleging that people who consume Skittles “are at heightened risk of a host of health effects for which they were unaware stemming from genotoxicity—the ability of a chemical substance to change DNA”.

However, a few months later in November that year, Thames voluntarily dismissed. No reason was given for the dismissal, which was without prejudice, meaning he can sue again.

This led to California passing a law banning four food additives commonly found in soda and candies in October last month. The law is now being referred to as the “Skittles ban” despite lawmakers removing the specific chemica - titanium dioxide - from the bill.

It instead bans several other chemicals that other countries already prohibit. With the new California Food Safety Act, it blocks the sale of foods containing brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propylparaben and Red Dye 3, some of which have been linked to cancer in animals.

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The four additives included in the California law have already been banned by the European Union (EU) Although unaffected, titanium dioxide is also banned in several other places, including the EU, however the Food and Drug Administration has said the chemical can be safely consumed in small quantities.

What is titanium dioxide?

Titanium dioxide, a chemical used as a whitening agent in foods, and associated with cancer development after inhalational exposures, and it may have effects on DNA and gastrointestinal system function.

Titanium is a common element found in the earth’s crust. In nature, titanium occurs in two forms: titanium oxide or titanium dioxide.

While titanium dioxide is found in nature as a mineral, it can also be manufactured commercially.

Titanium dioxide is often used as a pigment or dye because it has a bright white colour, does not break down easily when exposed to ultraviolet light, and remains stable over time.

Why is titanium dioxide used in food, including Skittles?

When used in food specifically, titanium dioxide is known as an additive called E171 and can be found in products like candy, chocolate, coffee creamer, cake decorations, chewing gum, and even vitamin supplements.

E171 is often used as a colouring additive in foods to lend the processed item a natural whiteness and opacity, such as in Skittles candy, where it's used as a white base to help give the candies their signature bright, colourful hue.

What happens to titanium dioxide in the body?

When humans eat titanium dioxide, less than one-tenth of one percent of the consumed product is actually absorbed by the body.

This means that titanium dioxide does not cross into the bloodstream in significant amounts. Instead, consumed titanium dioxide travels through the gastrointestinal tract and is excreted through the faeces.

Can Skittles cause cancer?

Inhalation of ultra-fine titanium dioxide particles, as well as pigment-grade titanium dioxide, is associated with cancer development in rats, mice, and hamsters.

Because of this, titanium dioxide is considered possibly carcinogenic to humans after inhalational exposure.

While inhalation of titanium dioxide may increase the risk of cancer in some individuals, there is no evidence that eating Skittles is associated with cancer development in humans.

What other foods contain titanium dioxide?

At this time, titanium dioxide is still used as an additive in thousands of food products in the United States.

If you wish to avoid foods with this particular ingredient, you should be sure to check the label carefully for titanium dioxide, or "E171", as a listed ingredient.

Foods that commonly contain titanium dioxide include heavily processed items in these categories: candy and sweets (including Skittles, as well as Starbursts, Jell-O, and Sour Patch Kids), cake decorations, chewing gum, chocolate, milk products, pastries, salad dressing, sauces, and vitamin supplements.

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