Do We See Additives Through Rose-Coloured Glasses?

You may be buying food coloured with additives that are considered safe in Canada, but not in Europe. What does that mean for your health?


Imagine a bright white powder sprinkled on your favourite candies or mixed into your morning coffee creamer. That’s titanium dioxide (TiO2), a common food additive used to enhance the visual appeal of various processed foods.

But should you be concerned about consuming it? There seem to be differing views in Europe and Canada on the safety of TiO2 in food.

The precautionary principle versus risk assessment

The difference in regulations boils down to how each continent approaches safety. Europe follows the precautionary principle, which avoids substances with any potential risk, regardless of how likely it is to occur.

As Dr. Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill University‘s Office for Science and Society, writes in an article: “European regulatory agencies favour the precautionary principle, which is the philosophical view that any hint of risk should preclude the use of a substance.”

Canada, on the other hand, uses a risk assessment approach. Here, scientists evaluate the likelihood and severity of harm under expected exposure conditions. Health Canada, our country’s federal health agency, considers factors like the amount typically consumed and how the body absorbs the substance.

So, why the disagreement?

Europe’s ban on TiO2 stemmed from laboratory studies where cells were exposed to high doses of the additive, sometimes in non-food grade forms. These studies raised concerns about genotoxicity, or potential damage to DNA.

However, as Schwarcz points out, “The meaning of these studies is unclear in terms of human exposure.”

Consuming food with much lower levels of titanium dioxide might not pose the same risk.

Canada considers real-world exposure

Health Canada acknowledges these lab studies, but emphasizes the importance of replicating real-world scenarios. Their 2022 review specifically considered the presence of nanoparticles in some food-grade TiO2.

Nanoparticles are extremely small particles that can behave differently than larger ones. However, in their study, Health Canada concluded that “the use of food grade titanium dioxide as an additive is not a concern for human health” based on studies using realistic doses.

Further supporting their decision, Health Canada cites animal studies where rats were fed food containing titanium dioxide at much higher levels than humans would typically consume. These studies found no signs of genotoxicity, carcinogenicity (i.e., cancer-causing), or other harmful effects.

The IARC weighs in

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies TiO2 as “possibly carcinogenic in humans.” However, it’s crucial to understand the context of this classification. The IARC rating applies primarily to situations where people inhale titanium dioxide, relevant to occupational exposure in certain industries — but not to food additives.

While the science suggests consuming food-grade titanium dioxide at typical levels is likely safe, Schwarcz highlights a more important point: “Consumption of candies, chewing gum, gummies and coffee creamers should be limited, not because they may contain titanium dioxide, but because they are nutritional paupers.”

In simpler terms, focus on a healthy diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and nuts. By making these choices, you’ll get the nutrients your body needs and likely avoid most foods containing titanium dioxide altogether.

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

Adam is a passionate advocate for women's and infants' health. With a Master of Science and a current Ph.D. from the University of Toronto's Department of Physiology, he has dedicated his academic and professional career to understanding and improving health outcomes for women and newborns. Adam's research is driven by a deep commitment to empowering women through education and by promoting the incredible advances in women's health care. As a proud Canadian, he is eager to shine a light on the contributions and progress made in his home country, aiming to inspire and contribute to a healthier future for all women and their families.