Oh sure, nanoparticle ‘titanium dioxide’ has been categorized as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA, but so what? GRAS, as we know from a number of sources, the most important one being the exhaustive research study funded by Pew Trust*, conducted by Tom Neltner and his colleagues, and published in a variety of peer-reviewed, prestigious medical and scientific journals including JAMA of the American Medical Association, have found that for the past 15 years or so Big Food themselves–and not the FDA or any independent review and regulatory oversight agency–have been determining what food additives garner GRAS status, in many cases, sans any safety testing. So that makes using GRAS status a pretty useless method for determining whether a food additive is actually safe for public consumption.
Add to that the fact that existing research findings, while still limited in number, suggest that the nanoparticle ‘titanium dioxide’ commonly used as a food additive to make certain products (including milk and dairy products, donuts, marshmallows, nondairy creamer, salad dressings, and so on) more “white”, holds the potential at least to create serious problems for some consumers. This potential for harm screams out for safety testing by a neutral third party and peer-review of the findings by qualified independent researchers.
This nanoparticle white pigment (officially classified as a food additive as opposed to a food dye) is present in processed foods common on grocery shelves, as well as in fast food and conventional restaurant foods. Frequently unlabeled in U.S. foods (though nanoparticles are required to be labeled in EU countries) this additive is used as a white pigment food coloring for processed foods such as skim milk, white cheese, yogurt, frosting/frosted foods, icing, candies, snack foods, mayonnaise, salad dressings, powdered sugar, marshmallows, pudding, breakfast toaster pastries, and non-diary coffee creamer, among many others. It is also commonly used in medicines and toothpaste.
Scientists are still determining the health safety and potential health hazards of nanoparticles in food. According to the professional organization American Society of Safety Engineers (the guide has since been removed from their website) ingested nanoparticles can be absorbed through small nodules in intestinal tissue (Peyer’s Plaques) that are part of the immune defense system. If nanoparticles enter the digestive system and proceed into the bloodstream, they can potentially move throughout the body and cause damage. Additionally, the Society concludes that:
“Nanoparticles may also accumulate in certain organs, disrupt and impair biological, structural and metabolic processes and weaken the immune system.”
Animals studies have demonstrated that nanoparticle ingestion changes the structure of the lining of the intestinal walls. Among other potential problems, such structural changes hold the potential for over-absorption of harmful compounds.
Additionally, research has indicated there are potential adverse health effects of nanoparticles on respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and studies of manufactured nanoparticles have demonstrated toxic properties. Among other health-related issues researchers are studying the potential link between Titanium Dioxide nanoparticles in food and an increased risk for inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and colitis.
And finally, a recent study funded by the National Science Foundation and published by the American Chemical Society found that nanomaterials in food and drinks can interfere with digestive cells, changing the normal organization and decreasing the number of microvilli (finger-like projections on the cells that help us digest food). What this means essentially is that in humans, if such an effect occurs as food and drinks pass through the gastrointestinal tract, these nanomaterials could lead to poor digestion or diarrhea.”
Thankfully, at least one big food manufacturer is planning to phase out the use of this additive in their products. We await other Big Food corporations to follow suit.
Neltner, T. & Maffini, M. 2014. Generally recognized as secret: Chemicals added to food in the United States.National Resource Defense Council (NRDC)Report.
Neltner, T., et al. 2013. Data gaps in toxicity testing of chemicals allowed in food in the United States, Reproductive Toxicology, 42:85–94.
Neltner, T., et al. 2013. Conflicts of interest in approvals of additives to food determined to be Generally Recognized as Safe out of balance. Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, 173(22):2032-2036.
Neltner T., et al. 2011. Navigating the U.S. food additive regulatory program. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 10:342–368.
Mars has officially committed to removing titanium dioxide, a potentially poisonous form of nanoparticles it and other manufacturers use in candies, according to the Center for Food Safety…public health advocates are concerned about nano-scale materials because they are tiny, yet highly reactive, and can pass through the human body’s blood-brain barrier in ways many other chemicals in food cannot.