Food & Drink

A common food colouring, used to whiten anything from toothpaste to muesli bars, could potentially cause cancer, according to the Europe’s food safety watchdog.

But food containing the red-flagged compound, titanium dioxide, can still be sold in New Zealand and also much of Europe.

The European Food Safety Authority changed its guidance on titanium dioxide, also known as E171, to warn it could potentially cause cancer.

“Titanium dioxide can no longer be considered safe,” the authority’s chair, professor Maged Younes, said in a statement.


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Titanium dioxide is found in common products on New Zealand’s supermarket shelves. Almost every toothpaste contains E171, and it’s also sold to bakers and in cake decoration kits.

A Countdown spokeswoman said the supermarket did not allow E171 in its own-brand products, and was working to remove it from “two remaining own brand products”.

She said it was currently present in a confectionery item and the Essential Mayonnaise, made by Countdown’s owner Woolworths Australia. A new formula had been put in place to remove E171 from the mayo, but she said had not yet made it to shelves. The new E171-free mayo should have completely replaced the old stock by September.

Most toothpastes include titanium dioxide.
Peter Drury/Waikato TimesMost toothpastes include titanium dioxide.

She said titanium oxide was used in some confectionery to achieve a “distinct white colour”.

Muesli bars, such as Weight Watchers Choc Coconut Delight, contain titanium dioxide as a food colouring. Even some cat and dog foods contain the chemical compound.

Many supplements, such as the Nature’s Way Keto Diet tablets, also contained titanium dioxide.

Younes said new evidence had come to light since the authority labelled titanium dioxide as safe to be consumed, in 2016.

“We could not exclude genotoxicity concerns after consumption of titanium dioxide particles. After oral ingestion, the absorption of titanium dioxide particles is low, however they can accumulate in the body,” she said, in the updated food safety assessment.

Genotoxicity tests asses the ability of chemicals to damage DNA. Damaged DNA can lead to cancer.

Products containing titanium dioxide include most toothpastes, and also foods such as some mayonnaise.
Glenn McConnell/StuffProducts containing titanium dioxide include most toothpastes, and also foods such as some mayonnaise.

Fiona Thomson-Carter, the director of food science and risk assessment at New Zealand Food Safety, said titanium dioxide would be allowed to remain on shelves despite the new assessment.

She said New Zealand would be following new investigations into the compound.

”We are aware of the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) recent scientific opinion and it will inform and add to our understanding of the product’s use in food,” she said.

Concerns about titanium dioxide have been raised for years, but intensified in 2017 after a study on rats which resulted in 40 per cent of the group developing signs of cancerous cells.

The rats were fed titanium dioxide for 100 days, in quantities reflecting that experienced by humans through food consumption. The 40 per cent of negatively impacted rats developed non-malignant stage of carcinogenesis, the process of normal cells becoming cancer cells

Foodstuffs, the owner of New World, Pak’n Save and Pams, said it would follow Government advice.

“We adhere to New Zealand laws and regulations and look to FSANZ for guidance on food ingredients,” a written statement from Foodstuffs corporate affairs manager Antoinette Laird said.

It was unclear if Pams products were made using E171.

Weight Watchers Australia and Nature’s Way New Zealand were both approached for comment.

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