Titanium dioxide is a naturally-occurring element and one of the most produced substances in the world today. In its refined form it is used as a pigment in a myriad of consumer items such as food products, paint, paper, cosmetics, sunscreen and more. New studies however, suggest that nanoparticle titanium dioxide may be a carcinogenic agent...
Titanium Dioxide is in Many Products We Use Daily, Including Food
Titanium dioxide is one of the top 50 produced substances for use around the world. Some 70% of all titanium dioxide produced is used as pigment in consumer products such as plastics, health & beauty aids and other personal care product that we use. Toothpaste products use titanium dioxide to get that desirable bright white color as do many other HBA products such as lotions, creams, shave foam, cosmetics, sunscreen lotions and more.
Sunscreen Use and UVA / UVB Protection
Sunscreen products use titanium dioxide (along with zinc oxide) as active ingredients for protection against UVA and UVB spectrum wavelengths. The familiar white tracer-color of sunscreen when applied to the skin is evidence of these two active ingredients in the product.
The ability to grind titanium dioxide (and zinc oxide) into ultra-fine nanoparticles (less than 0.1 microns) makes the white color of sunscreen products disappear quicker when applied to the skin. This nanoparticulate size does not impede the UVA and UVB protection qualities the product provides. Concerns of recent are that these ultra-small nanoparticles because of their diminutive size might be absorbed directly into the cells of the body with unknown and potentially dire health consequences.
Titanium dioxide nanoparticles have been shown to cause cancer in intratracheal tests (introduction of the substance in dry form directly into the lungs via tracheal inhalation) in lab animals. Particulate deposition caused clogging of lung pathways and cellular injury, ultimately leading to fibrosis and cancer in the lab animal. An ongoing human study of workers that by trade mill, handle, distribute, administer, clean or otherwise process titanium dioxide does not indicate any elevated risk to their health. Monitoring the health of these test subjects for cumulative data may in the future factor towards a better understanding of any actual health risks.
Research continues to study whether or not these particles are similarly absorbed via direct application to the body in the common consumer forms. This applies to topically-applied consumer products such as lotions, hair shampoo, cosmetics, toothpastes. The current belief is that no, these nanoparticulate particles do not reach the cellular level in this form either. They are washed harmlessly away with no penetration of skin cells.
Titanium Dioxide in Food Products
Food products such as sour cream, cottage cheese (via the cheese dressing,) ice cream and other dairy products use a small quantity of the pigment to attain that familiar bright-white coloration.
The benefits of titanium dioxide as used in food products are for marketability purposes. Their inclusion probably exceeds the health risk as determined solely by the much finer nanoparticulate grade which is the focus of the ongoing study.
The only factor for the inclusion of titanium dioxide in foods is for visual appeal of the finished product and for no other reason. The food should look appetizing. Cottage cheese would be butter-yellow if not for the addition of a small and prescribed amount of titanium dioxide at the blending stage of manufacture.
Whole-skim milk in the pre-production stage of cottage cheese manufacturing is a light pale-yellow color prior to Separation (cottage cheese is made with part-skim milk with the Butter Fat separated or skimmed.) When most of the butterfat is separated, the result is called "part-skim milk" and in the reduced butterfat state, actually has a light pale-blue color!
The bulk cultures for inoculating (culturing) part-skim milk for cottage cheese is a dark beige/tan brown color. The volume of culture required to produce good acid-development in cottage cheese requires approximately 1-part culture to 40 parts skim milk (e.g., 100-gallons culture for 4000 gallons skim milk.) When cooked, the cheese curd takes on a pale yellow to manila color.
The cheese curds are blended with the dressing (sweet cheese cream) prior to packaging to make the finished cottage cheese product both creamy, sweet and also bright white. If the yellow tint of the cooked cheese curd is not factored-out with titanium dioxide in the cheese dressing the finished product would have an undesirable color at the consumer level.
Titanium Dioxide is What Makes White Paint White
Every time you have ever eaten cottage cheese you have ingested titanium dioxide, this is fact. It is the accepted nature of the product. Cheese dressing that would be added to the rinsed curds is actually rather yellow, much like butter. Adding a measured quantity of titanium dioxide quite effectively 'bleaches' the fatty liquid dressing stark white. When added to the moderately white rinsed cheese curd produces the familiar snow-white product cottage cheese. Note *
The pigment used is also the same ingredient that makes white paint white. This is an unfair comparison however. One could counter that a substance used in cottage cheese manufacturing is the same substance used in white house paint and that statement would also be equally true.
At the exceedingly minute quantities used in food manufacturing there is likely no ascertainable health risk. Titanium dioxide as a pigment in food products is classified as a "manufacturing aid" and not as a food ingredient and therefore can be exempt from the requirement of being listed the label of contents. But it is in there. You just didn't know it.
So, is titanium dioxide inclusion in food and personal care products a health risk? Ongoing research seeks a definitive answer but for now, most health agencies say that no, Titanium Dioxide in commercial products are not harmful.
Note * : Author has over 16 years experience in the cultured/dairy foods industry.