In a world where nearly everything is harmful to your health in one way or another, it should come as little surprise that the seemingly innocuous coffee creamer you take with your morning cup of joe may contain something that could kill you.
The chemical is called titanium dioxide, and it’s used as an additive in food products to change their texture and color. It’s also commonly found in sunscreens, paints, and plastics.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), ultrafine titanium dioxide is a potential occupational carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) for humans when inhaled. However, the effects of breathing in titanium dioxide are totally different compared to when you eat it, according to Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, LD, assistant professor in public health at the University of North Florida and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“It really is comparing apples to oranges,” Wright says. “It’s different forms and very different amounts. The food titanium dioxide is very different than what they put into paint and other chemicals.”
In fact, titanium dioxide’s reputation as a carcinogen came mainly from the tiny particles of the chemical found in paint products, according to Hans Plugge, SM, MSc, senior toxicologist with 3E Company and American Chemical Society expert.
“It irritates the lung lining,” Plugge says. “Eventually it causes enough injury that it causes a cancer-like response.”
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) concluded in 1966 that titanium dioxide is generally recognized as safe in food, so long as it doesn’t make up more than 1% of the product’s weight. Still, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2010 deemed it a potential carcinogen for humans.
Alas, like many issues related to diet and health these days, we’re left with questionable evidence and conflicting opinions when it comes to the potential health risks associated with titanium dioxide. So until the eggheads can reach a consensus (don’t hold your breath), I say best to err on the side of caution. Titanium dioxide is bad for you, and will probably kill you. Be afraid. Be very afraid.