Is your gut under siege from a common food additive?

February 22, 2017 Providence Health Team

You didn’t ask to consume titanium dioxide, but you can’t escape it. The chemical additive is used as a whitener or texturizer in a wide variety of food products, from milk to mayonnaise.   It’s also in the sunscreen you lather over your skin and the toothpaste you brush across your teeth.

Unfortunately, tiny, invisible particles of the stuff, consumed regularly over time, can take a toll on the surface of your intestinal cells. Steady exposure to titanium dioxide nanoparticles makes it harder for those cells to take in nutrients and causes other harmful effects, according to a study published in the journal NanoImpact.

Chronic consumption a concern

“Titanium oxide is a common food additive and people have been eating a lot of it for a long time—don’t worry, it won’t kill you!—but we were interested in some of the subtle effects,” said Gretchen Mahler, an assistant professor at Binghamton University in New York and one of the authors of the study.

The authors said brief exposures to the particles have little effect, but chronic exposure can hurt the ability of intestinal cells to operate efficiently. The study defined chronic exposure as eating three meals containing titanium dioxide over five days.

Where do you find titanium dioxide?

A 2012 Arizona State University study examined the use of titanium dioxide in food products. It found the compound in gum, soy milk, Twinkies, mayonnaise and a variety of other products.

The lead author of that study, Arizona State professor Paul Westerhoff, called it “a common additive” that is “most commonly found in candies, sweets and chewing gums.”

A food safety advocacy group pressured the Dunkin Donuts chain to stop using titanium dioxide particles in its powdered sugar donuts. The company told a trade journal in 2015 it’s “rolling out a solution to the system that does not contain titanium dioxide.”

Nevertheless, the substance is nearly impossible to avoid. Binghamton University’s Mahler suggested you can minimize your exposure to titanium dioxide particles by avoiding processed foods, especially candy.

“That is where you see a lot of nanoparticles,” she said.

What’s in your food?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that gave us the Choose My Plate tool, has a search engine that lets you check the ingredients in specific foods. Choose, for example, one serving of cornbread, made from mix, and you’ll get a lengthy list of ingredients, starting with the usual information about fat and sugars, and progressing down to specific elements, including magnesium, selenium and zinc.

We’ve written frequently about diet and nutrition, including these posts:

How much sugar should you have? »
Stay young: Eat your broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers and avocados »
New dietary guidelines mean big changes »

How closely do you watch what you feed your family?

What tips do you have for others? Please comment below.

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