Food Additive or Carcinogen? The growing list of chemicals banned by the EU but used in the US | meal
THere’s a hidden ingredient used as a whitening agent in a range of foods from candy and pastries to cheese and chewing gum. It’s called titanium dioxide, and while it’s widely used in the US, it’s banned in the EU as a possible carcinogen.
The additive, also known as E171, joins a host of other chemicals banned in food in the European Union but allowed in the US.
These include azodicarbonamide, a whitening agent found in foods like bread, bagels, pizza and pastries in the US that has been banned in the EU for more than a decade. The additive, known as the “yoga mat” chemical because it’s commonly found in foamed plastics, has been linked to asthma and respiratory problems in exposed workers and cancer in studies in mice when baked.
Potassium bromate, an oxidizing agent commonly found in bread and dough and linked to kidney and thyroid cancer in animal studies, has been banned in the EU since 1990 but is still widely used in the US. Brominated vegetable oil is also banned in the EU, but is used in the US as an emulsifier in citrus sodas and beverages. Long-term exposure has been linked to headaches, memory loss, and incoordination.
The Food and Drug Administration classifies these food chemicals and many others banned by the EU as “generally recognized as safe.”
Chemical safety procedures in the EU and the US work in completely different ways. Where European policy tends to take a precautionary approach – trying to prevent damage before it happens – the US is usually more reactive.
There is more of a “wait and see attitude,” said Tatiana Santos, chemicals manager at the European Environment Bureau (EEB), a network of environmental citizens’ organizations. “The US often waits for the damage to be done and the EU tries to prevent it to some extent. It often seems that the US prioritizes market over protection.”
The EU’s decision to phase out titanium dioxide came after a re-evaluation of the food additive’s safety by the European Food Safety Association (EFSA), an agency that provides the EU with independent scientific advice on food risks.
EFSA scientists have screened almost 12,000 scientific publications. They were particularly interested in recent research on titanium dioxide nanoparticles’ “genotoxicity” – their ability to damage DNA and lead to cell mutations that potentially cause cancer. Animal experiments have found that nanoparticles affect microorganisms in the gut that can cause diseases such as intestinal and intestinal inflammation and colon cancer.
EFSA’s Expert Panel on Food Additives and Flavorings noted that it could not rule out concerns about the genotoxicity of the nanoparticles, which accumulate in the body over time, meaning they ‘could no longer be considered safe as a food additive’.
Unlike the EU, the US does not have agencies like EFSA that offer independent scientific assessment of new chemicals that are placed on the market. And while the EU has constantly updated its methods and processes for evaluating new chemicals, some experts say the US system, put in place more than half a century ago, needs updating.
The EU-funded EFSA was set up in 2002 to identify existing and emerging risks in the food chain. European manufacturers interested in using new chemicals must undergo EFSA’s scientific assessment, which analyzes, among other things, the manufacturing process, proposed uses and toxicity to humans. EFSA then provides scientific advice to the European Commission, Member State authorities and the European Parliament.
While conflicts of interest have been criticized before, an EFSA spokesperson said the panel has “a strict set of internal mechanisms and working processes to ensure the independence of our science”.
In the United States, the Food Additive Amendment was created in 1958 after public concerns about the safety of food chemicals. All new food chemicals were required to be evaluated and approved by the FDA, although chemicals that were already in the food system prior to the change were not re-evaluated.
For additives such as titanium dioxide, manufacturers apply to the FDA for approval by providing evidence that the substance is safe for its intended use. The FDA is evaluating the application and will approve the additive if it concludes that the data provided show the substance is safe to use.
It’s “a clear conflict of interest,” said Thomas Galligan, senior scientist on food additives and supplements at the nonprofit watchdog and consumer protection group Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Of course [companies] will want to say it’s safe.”
An FDA spokesman said the organization will conduct its “own review of the literature and other relevant information” in addition to the manufacturer’s evidence.
In addition to the lack of an independent evaluation, guidance on conducting these food safety evaluations at the FDA has not been updated since 2007.
“Even if these chemicals are evaluated, they don’t use modern science in those evaluations, while the EU updates its guidance fairly regularly,” Galligan said. “There has been a lot of research done in toxicology over the last 15 years that is not necessarily implemented by the FDA.”
Galligan said this includes a better understanding of how different chemicals interact and how exposure to multiple chemicals can have a more significant impact on a person’s health than exposure to each one.
Most serious diseases like cancer are multifactorial, EEB’s Santos said. “You can get cancer for many different reasons, and one of them is exposure to carcinogens. We are exposed to hundreds of chemicals every day. However, it is so difficult to prove afterwards that a particular chemical is the cause of, for example, cancer, and therefore the precautionary principle should be applied.”
An FDA spokesman said the organization’s “assessment of the safety of food additives and color additives is based on the most current scientific evidence available at the time, and this includes information published by other regulatory agencies.”
It is said that titanium dioxide is safe according to current knowledge. “The available safety studies show no safety concerns related to the use of titanium dioxide as a color additive,” the FDA spokesman said.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry association representing US chemical companies, said in a statement: “EFSA’s assessment did not conclude that E171 is genotoxic but identified uncertainties with the need to further explore the effects of the substance.” The association added that the industry is “investing in new science to generate data to confirm the safety of E171.”
The global titanium dioxide market was valued at US$17.19 billion in 2020 and is projected to grow more than 6% over the next five years.
The EU’s exit from titanium dioxide comes in the midst of a chemical overhaul. Up to 12,000 chemicals in food packaging, cleaning products, cosmetics, children’s products, pesticides and more will be banned over the next five years. The bloc pledges to ban chemicals linked to cancer and endocrine disorders in an effort dubbed the “great detox.”
As the EU continues to regulate chemicals, some hope the FDA will be pushed to do the same. “If you’re worried these regulations will hurt the market, look to Europe,” Santos said. “It has banned or regulated thousands of chemicals on the market and we are still among the most competitive in the world.”
Santos also noted that research has shown that strict laws do indeed drive innovation and “can push companies to innovate when chemicals may be banned.” She said, “Why not develop chemicals that are safe in the first place so they might not have to be banned in the future?”