This holiday treat can harm your health

Shiny, red-and-white-striped peppermint candy is usually associated with brisk winter days, snow and Christmas – not harm to your DNA. But that’s exactly what can result from exposure to titanium dioxide, a food chemical commonly used in these sweet treats. 

Titanium dioxide is used in many types of popular peppermint candy, including Brach’s Peppermint Crushed Candy Canes, Brach’s Star Brites Peppermint Candy, among others. It can also be found in Skittles and Starburst

Titanium dioxide works as a white colorant or a way to give the product a smoother texture. It can make food more appealing by brightening other colors, too. But it has no nutritional benefit. 

For years scientists have raised concerns about the potential toxicity of titanium dioxide. Building on work nearly a decade old, a 2020 study said there isn’t evidence of the chemical’s safety. And concerns emerged about exposure to titanium dioxide nanoparticles in candy, commonly eaten by children, since they’re more vulnerable to harm from toxic chemicals than adults are.

Nanoparticles are extremely small – undetectable to the human eye – and their chemical and physical properties may differ from those of larger particles.

Most recently, a study this month found nanoparticles in food can cross the placenta and reach the developing fetus, leaving it at greater risk of potentially life-threatening food allergies. 

After the European Union decided in 2016 there was no proof that titanium dioxide harms consumers’ health, the evidence was reevaluated in 2021 by the European Food Safety Authority, or EFSA, to consider the impact of nanoparticles. EFSA concluded that they can accumulate in the body and that it’s not possible to rule out the possibility titanium dioxide in food can cause chromosomal damage and break DNA strands. 

As a result of these findings, EFSA declared the chemical unsafe for consumption.

But titanium dioxide continues to be used in the U.S. in sweet treats such as candy canes. In fact, it hasn’t been reassessed by U.S. regulators for safety in more than 50 years. 

It’s past time for the Food and Drug Administration to catch up. 

In July 2022, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Mars, the maker of Skittles, Starburst and many other candies that use titanium dioxide. The lawsuit claimed Mars had “long known of the health problems” the food chemical can contribute to. 

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What you can do

While we await federal regulatory action, here are some ways you and your family can avoid titanium dioxide in food.

  • Check the label. Food companies must show on the label whether their products contain titanium dioxide as an additive.
  • Find alternatives. Avoid foods containing the chemical altogether, or use EWG’s Food Scores database to look for alternatives without it. 
  • Avoid ultra-processed foods. Whenever possible, steer clear of ultra-processed foods. Many contain other ingredients of concern, not just titanium dioxide. Current regulations allow over 10,000 additives in our food, and companies aren’t required to disclose all of them on product labels.

An EWG analysis found nearly 99 percent of all food chemicals introduced since 2000 were greenlighted for use by the food and chemical industries, not by the FDA, so we can’t be sure at all they’re safe for human use. Check out our Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Chemicals and our Food Additives State of the Science report to learn more about these chemicals.

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