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

THere’s a hidden ingredient used as a whitener in a variety of foods, from candy and cakes to cheese 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 number of other chemicals that are banned in food in the European Union but allowed in the US.

This includes azodicarbonamide, a whitening agent found in foods like bread, 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 foam plastic, the additive has been linked to asthma and respiratory problems in exposed workers and, when baked, to cancer in rat studies.

Potassium bromate, an oxidizing agent often found in breads and pastas and associated in animal studies with kidney and thyroid cancer, 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 soft drinks and citrus 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 banned by the EU, as “generally recognized as safe.”

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

There’s 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 usually waits until evil is done and the EU tries to avoid it to some extent. It often seems that the US prefers the market to protection.”

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

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

The EFSA expert panel on food additives and flavorings found that it cannot dismiss concerns about the genotoxicity of the nanoparticles, which accumulate in the body over time, meaning it “can no longer be considered safe as a food additive.”

Titanium dioxide, known as E171, is used as a whitener in a variety of foods. Photography: Roberto Fome/Alamy

Unlike the EU, the US does not have agencies like the EFSA that provide independent scientific assessment of new chemicals brought to market. And while the EU has consistently updated its methods and processes for evaluating new chemicals, some experts say the US system, created 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 pass EFSA’s scientific assessment, which looks at the 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 of conflicts of interest, an EFSA spokesperson said the body had “a rigorous set of internal mechanisms and working processes to safeguard the independence of our science”.

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

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

This is “a clear conflict of interest,” said Thomas Galligan, lead scientist for food additives and supplements at the nonprofit and consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It is clear [companies] They’ll mean it’s safe.”

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

In addition to the lack of independent review, guidance on how to conduct these food safety assessments has not been updated from the FDA since 2007.

“So even when these chemicals are being evaluated, they are not using modern science in these evaluations, while the EU updates its guidance quite regularly,” Galligan said. “There has been a lot of toxicology research over the last 15 years that is not necessarily being implemented by the FDA.”

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

The most serious diseases, such as cancer, are multifactorial, said Santos, from the EEB. “You can get cancer for many different reasons and one of them is exposure to carcinogens. We are exposed to hundreds of chemicals daily. It is so difficult to prove in hindsight, however, that a particular chemical is the reason for causing, say, cancer, which is why a precautionary principle must be used.”

An FDA spokesperson said the “organization’s assessment 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 based on current evidence. “The available safety studies do not demonstrate safety concerns related to the use of titanium dioxide as a color additive,” said the FDA spokesperson.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry body representing U.S. chemical companies, said in a statement: “EFSA’s assessment did not conclude that E171 is genotoxic, but identified uncertainties with the need to further investigate the effects of substance”. The association added that the industry “is investing in new science to generate data that confirm the safety of E171.”

The global titanium dioxide market was valued at US$17.19 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow by more than 6% over the next five years.

The phasing out of titanium dioxide in the EU comes amid a chemical overhaul. Up to 12,000 chemicals found in food packaging, cleaning products, cosmetics, children’s products, pesticides and more will be banned in the next five years. The bloc promises to ban chemicals linked to cancer and endocrine disorders in an effort dubbed a “great detox.”

As the EU continues its sweep of chemical regulation, some expect the FDA to be pressured to do the same. “If the concern is that these regulations harm the market, look to Europe,” Santos said. “It banned or regulated thousands of chemicals on the market and we are still among the most competitive in the world.”

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

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