Is California about to ban Skittles?

By March 21, 2023 Health

Is California about to ban Skittles? Do Skittles pose a real health risk?

The headline “California could ban skittles” has been widely shared around social media in the past few days. We’ve observed a lack of clarity when it comes to the questions this headline has produced. Why are lawmakers targeting Skittles? Could they really be banned across an entire state?

The headlines stem from a bill proposed last month in California. It calls for an amendment to the Health and Safety Code relating to food such that five substances would be prohibited from being manufactured or sold in food products: Brominated vegetable oil, Potassium bromate, Propylparaben, Red dye 3, and Titanium dioxide.

Skittles are a popular fruit-based candy that uses titanium dioxide as an additive.  The candy’s entanglement with titanium dioxide has made the news several times in the past few months – most recently when its manufacturer, Mars. Inc, was sued for “failing to disclose the health risks of titanium dioxide” (the case has since been dismissed). Current legislation in America allows for limited levels of titanium dioxide in food products.

Although the bill itself does not mention any brand names, initial reporting by the Daily Mail focused on Skittles and a short list of other food products. Subsequent headlines have since framed their reporting around well-known brands such as Skittles and Campbells Soup possibly being banned from California entirely. Social media responses have also focused mainly on Skittles – we have observed multiple posts that only mention Skittles and titanium dioxide rather than the full range of proposed banned substances.

While it is true that Skittles fall under the umbrella of food products that contain titanium dioxide and would therefore be affected by the bill if it were passed, it is untrue that the bill proposes to ban any specific product. We therefore give this a rating of “somewhat true.”

Another important caveat is that the bill is still very far from being signed into law. After its initial introduction, the bill must undergo a minimum of 5 more steps including committee hearings, majority votes in both State Assembly and Senate, alongside Governor approval; none of which have even happened yet. This context is not provided in most of the reporting on this subject.

A Closer Look at Titanium Dioxide

The second issue we explored is titanium dioxide. Is consuming Skittles potentially dangerous or harmful to health because of its titanium dioxide content? We came across widely viewed posts which describe Skittles as affecting “genes and DNA” or causing cancer.

These posts are somewhat supported by the fact that food products containing titanium dioxide have, indeed, been banned in the European Union (EU) by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In this case, Skittles have also become a central example. However, our research suggests that the science is far less clear cut.

Titanium dioxide is a naturally occurring mineral which can be processed for use as a cosmetic additive in a variety of foods – adding a sheen and enhancing white shades. It is used in a wide range of products – from creamer, to cheese, and even the coating of medicinal tablets.

According to the EFSA, their panel of experts produced reports after surveying available research on the effects of titanium dioxide. The decision to name titanium dioxide a carcinogen in 2019 and implement a ban across food products in 2022 was based on these reports.  The panel concluded it was not possible to rule out the potential of titanium dioxide to “cause genotoxicity.”

This inability to rule out genotoxicity (when a substance can damage DNA possibly leading to cancer) is behind claims about Skittles being toxic and cancer-causing. However, the panel also acknowledged that they did not find any direct causal relationships between the substance and immediate harm to humans – they were simply unable to rule it out due to a lack of complete and conclusive research. Nevertheless, the EU applied the precautionary principle – opting to lower risk factors by removing the substance from the manufacturing process.

However, the United Kingdom, United States, and many other countries have made no moves to ban titanium dioxide in food products. Singapore permits it under “good manufacturing practice” regulations, meaning that it can “be added to food at a quantity limited to the lowest possible level necessary to accomplish its desired effect.”

In 2021 and 2022, Health Canada and the FDA released reports affirming their stance that food-grade titanium dioxide used in small amounts is not a safety concern.  Both  pointed out that the EFSA reports included studies unrelated to food-grade titanium dioxide. They also mentioned other recent studies where animal test subjects showed no negative reaction to titanium dioxide. Other experts have expressed the opinion that titanium dioxide in food products is unlikely to have toxic effects when consumed and that widespread panic is unnecessary. This stance was given further credence last December, when the European Union’s General Court reversed the 2019 classification of titanium dioxide as a carcinogen based on the scientific evidence being lacking. The ban related to food products, however, remains in place.

Is consuming Skittles potentially dangerous or harmful to health because of its titanium dioxide content? We give it an “unproven” rating for now.

Current research suggests that harmful impacts are limited – particularly when consumed in moderation. However, as studies continue to be carried out and manufacturers within the EU work to find alternatives to titanium dioxide, it is also possible that the substance sees reduced usage in coming years.

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