Sweets, cookies, medicines: know how to avoid titanium dioxide

Food controls will be tightened to check if they contain the additive E171 and its titanium dioxide nanoparticles, which the French, for the most part, were unaware of before the summer. Following alerts launched by NGOs, confirmed by studies from the magazine 60 million consumers, the government announced on August 31 more tests on the presence of these nanoparticles.. They will be reflected, in the event of a positive result, by the mention "Nano" on the product labels. Since 2013, a European regulation has imposed the presence of this information on packaging.

Crushed titanium dioxide, seen under a microscope. Epop / Wikimedia commons

DWhat are we talking about exactly? Titanium dioxide, or TiO, is a natural salt produced from several minerals (anatase, ilmenite, brookite and rutile), mined in different countries such as Brazil, China, Canada or Australia. Obtained after chemical treatment of these ores, it is in the form of a very fine white powder. It is found in many food products such as sweets, industrial pastries or ready meals, where it is used to give a shiny appearance. It is also found in certain drugs and in cosmetic products, where it has a function of white opacifier.

An additive classified as "possible carcinogenic"

What is the problem ? For more than ten years, titanium dioxide has been suspected by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to be a possible carcinogenic to humans. But the thing not being absolutely demonstrated, it remains, at the present time, authorized.

In foods, TiO2 can be in two forms: micro or nanoparticles, most often a mixture of the two. A nanoparticle has a dimension between 1 and 100 nanometers (billionth of a meter) therefore much smaller than that of a human cell.

Basically, titanium dioxide is of little use. Many manufacturers also recognize that TiO2 does not present any tangible benefit to the consumer. We may therefore wonder why we are taking so long to ban it. Its main interest lies, in fact, in its low cost. This explains why its production reaches more than five million tonnes per year globally.

Identify the foods in which it is present

What can consumers do, then? Pending future regulations, or even a ban, it is better to respect the precautionary principle and to refrain from consuming titanium dioxide. The whole question is to know… in which foods it is present. The NGO Act for the Environment has investigated about it and identified it in hundreds of candies, including Malabar chewing gum or M & M's candies, as well as in 1 consumer products. The significant content of TiO2 in sugary foods abundantly consumed by children was confirmed by the survey of 60 million consumers.

Her presence, indicated by the code E171, can be verified simply by looking at the label of the product you are about to buy.

In addition, will we soon see a specific mention on the packaging when titanium dioxide is present in the form of nanoparticles? It will all depend on the pressure exerted by the government.

Titanium dioxide in paints or toothpaste

The presence of TiO2 in our environment is not limited to the food industry. It is also used as a pigment carrier in paints, paper, plastics, ceramics. It is found in many cosmetology products, some of which, such as toothpaste, are in common use. Due to the ability of titanium dioxide to absorb ultraviolet radiation, it is also found in sun products.

At the pharmaceutical level, finally, the situation is even more worrying: TiO2 is present in more than 4 drugs currently on the market and widely prescribed. Doliprane, to name just one example, is one of them. In drugs, as in most other products, the role of titanium dioxide is essentially to make the products whiter, and therefore less worrying for the patient. An aesthetic function, which we could do without as long as users are warned of the change.

In the meantime, you can check the presence of titanium dioxide by reading the instructions for the medication. It is actually found in a lot of white pills. But it is obviously as complicated to do without candy as to change the medicine!

Health consequences to be specified

Titanium dioxide can be absorbed through the digestive tract, passing through the wall of the intestine. It can also pass through the skin or the respiratory system, which should alert the personnel who use it in their professional activity. Brigitte Moreau, co-author of this article, has also handled titanium dioxide powder for several years in a pharmaceutical laboratory, without knowing the risks - fortunately on an ad hoc basis.

The harmful effects of titanium dioxide on health remain to be clarified, since numerous toxicity tests have been carried out on animals. The results are often difficult to transpose to humans.

Inhaled, titanium dioxide would have an inflammatory and irritant power as important as that of silica or asbestos. Recent tests on rats and on human cell cultures have shown inflammatory activity in the lungs and lungs. peritoneum, among others, and therefore a possible carcinogenic effect.

In the form of nanoparticles, TiO2 can cross cell membranes, and its strong oxidizing power can damage the DNA of cells irreversibly. Due to their nanometric size, these particles can, via the bloodstream, enter organs such as the liver or the brain, while most toxic substances are usually stopped by physiological barriers formed by epithelia.

Thus, we find ourselves in a situation that closely resembles the one we experienced with asbestos. The use of this fiber was banned only in 1997, when its dangerousness had been known for over a century and that it had been classified as carcinogenic by the IARC - very late - in 1973. Since then scandal, the precautionary principle has won its letters of nobility; the problem posed by titanium dioxide is the occasion, or never, to apply it.

Gerard Tremblin, Emeritus Professor of Plant Biology, Le Mans University et Brigitte Moreau, assistant engineer biology, Le Mans University

La original version of this article was posted on The Conversation.

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