Food additive or carcinogen? The growing list of chemicals banned by EU but used in US

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Jozef Polc/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jozef Polc/Alamy

There’s a hidden ingredient used as a whitener in an array of foods, from candies and pastries to cheeses and gum. It’s called titanium dioxide, and while commonly used in the US, it’s being banned in the EU as a possible carcinogen.

The additive, also known as E171, joins a host of other chemicals that are banned in foods in the European Union but allowed in the US.

These include Azodicarbonamide, a whitening agent found in food such as breads, bagels, pizza, and pastries in the US, which has been banned in the EU for more than a decade. Known as the “yoga mat’’ chemical because it is often found in foamed plastic, the additive has been linked to asthma and respiratory issues in exposed workers and, when baked, to cancer in mice studies.

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Potassium bromate, an oxidizing agent often found in bread and dough and linked in animal studies to kidney and thyroid cancers, has been banned in the EU since 1990 but is still commonly used in the US. Brominated vegetable oil is also banned in the EU but is used as an emulsifier in citrus sodas and drinks in the US. Long-term exposure has been linked to headaches, memory loss and impaired coordination.

The Food and Drug Administration classifies these food chemicals, and many others prohibited by the EU, as “generally recognized as safe”.

Chemical safety processes in the EU and US work in starkly different ways. Where European policy tends to take a precautionary approach – trying to prevent harm before it happens – the US is usually more reactive.

There is more of a “wait and see approach”, said Tatiana Santos, chemicals manager at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a network of environmental citizens’ organizations. “The US often waits until the harm is done and the EU tries to prevent it to a certain extent. It often seems the US favors the market over protection.”

The EU’s decision to phase out titanium dioxide came after a re-evaluation of the safety of the food additive conducted by the European Food Safety Association (EFSA), an agency that delivers independent scientific advice to the EU about food-related risks.

EFSA scientists screened nearly 12,000 scientific publications. They were particularly interested in recent research on the “genotoxicity” of titanium dioxide nanoparticles – their ability to damage DNA and lead to cell mutations, potentially causing cancer. In animal studies, nanoparticles have been found to affect microorganisms in the gut, which could trigger diseases like intestinal and bowel inflammation and colorectal cancer.

EFSA’s expert panel on food additives and flavorings found it could not rule out concerns about the genotoxicity of the nanoparticles, which accumulate in the body over time, meaning it could “no longer be considered safe as a food additive”.

white powder against a black background
Titanium dioxide, known as E171, is used as a whitener in several foods Photograph: Roberto Hunger/Alamy

Unlike the EU, the US does not have agencies like EFSA that offer independent scientific evaluation of new chemicals brought to the market. And while the EU has consistently updated its methods and processes for evaluating new chemicals, some experts say the US system, set up more than half a century ago, needs updating.

EFSA, funded by the EU, was created in 2002 to determine existing and emerging risks in the food chain. European manufacturers interested in using new chemicals must undergo EFSA’s scientific evaluation, which analyzes manufacturing process, proposed uses and toxicity to humans, among other factors. EFSA then provides scientific advice to the European Commission, member state authorities and the European parliament.

While there have been previous criticisms about conflicts of interest, an EFSA spokesperson said the body had “a strict set of internal mechanisms and working processes to safeguard the independence of our science”.

In the US, the Food Additive Amendment was created in 1958, after public concern about the safety of food chemicals. All new food chemicals were required to be evaluated and approved by the FDA, although chemicals already in the food system before the amendment were not re-evaluated.

In the case of additives like titanium dioxide, manufacturers petition the FDA for its approval by submitting evidence that the substance is safe for its intended use. The FDA evaluates the application, and will authorize the additive if it concludes the data provided demonstrates that the substance is safe to use.

This is “a clear conflict of interest”, said Thomas Galligan, principal scientist for food additives and supplements at the non-profit watchdog and consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Of course [companies] are going to want to say it’s safe.”

An FDA spokesperson said that in addition to evidence from the manufacturer, the organization will do its “own review of the literature and other relevant information”.

It’s so difficult to prove in hindsight that a certain chemical is the reason for causing, say, cancer, and that’s why a precautionary principle should be used

Tatiana Santos

Alongside the lack of independent evaluation, the guidance on how to conduct these food safety assessments has not been updated at the FDA since 2007.

“So even when these chemicals are being evaluated, they’re not using modern science in those evaluations, whereas the EU updates their guidance pretty regularly,” said Galligan. “There’s been a lot of research in toxicology in the last 15 years that isn’t necessarily being implemented by the FDA.”

Galligan said this includes a better understanding of how different chemicals interact and how exposure to multiple chemicals may have a more significant impact on someone’s health than being exposed to each one alone.

Most serious diseases like cancer are multifactorial, said EEB’s Santos. “You can get cancer for many different reasons and one of them is exposure to carcinogens. We are exposed to hundreds of chemicals on a daily basis. It’s so difficult to prove in hindsight, though, that a certain chemical is the reason for causing, say, cancer, and that’s why a precautionary principle should be used.”

An FDA spokesperson said the organization’s “evaluation of the safety of food additives and color additives is based on the most current science available at the time, and this includes information made public by other regulatory bodies.”

It says titanium dioxide is safe on current evidence. “The available safety studies do not demonstrate safety concerns connected to the use of titanium dioxide as a color additive,” said the FDA spokesperson.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry body representing US chemical companies, said in a statement: “The EFSA assessment did not conclude that E171 is genotoxic but identified uncertainties with a need to further investigate 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 titanium dioxide global market was valued at $17.19bn in 2020 and is projected to grow more than 6% over the next five years.

The EU’s phase-out of titanium dioxide comes in the midst of chemical overhaul. Up to 12,000 chemicals found in food packaging, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, children’s products, pesticides and more will be banned over the next five years. The bloc is promising to outlaw chemicals linked to cancers and endocrine disorders in an effort dubbed the “great detox”.

As the EU continues its sweep of chemical regulation, some hope the FDA will be pushed to do the same. “If the worry is that these regulations will damage the market, look at Europe,” said Santos. “It banned or regulated thousands of chemicals in the market and we’re still among the most competitive in the world.”

Santos also noted that research has shown strong legislation can actually spur innovation, “pushing companies to innovate when chemicals may be banned”. She said: “Why not design chemicals that are safe in the first place, so that they won’t need to be potentially banned in the future?”