Are Skittles Toxic? Experts Weigh In On Lawsuit


Key Takeaways

  • A new lawsuit accuses Mars, the parent company of Skittles, of including a toxic ingredient.
  • The ingredient of concern is titanium dioxide, an agent that helps make food and other items (like toothpaste and paper) appear brighter.
  • The FDA allows the use of titanium dioxide in certain quantities, and experts claim that there is more to learn before we can deem this product toxic.

Does a particular ingredient make Skittles “unfit for human consumption?” That’s what plaintiff Jenile Thames is claiming in a class action lawsuit filed against Mars Corporation earlier this month.

The lawsuit says Mars has failed to disclose the health risks of titanium dioxide, a compound used as a brightening agent in Skittles. Titanium oxide is what makes Skittles shiny. It has the same effect on paint.

Naturally, candy lovers and parents of candy-loving children are now in a tizzy over these allegations. Is our beloved rainbow-colored candy truly toxic and unsafe for human consumption? Or is the level of titanium dioxide negligible and not something to worry about?

We turned to some experts to get to the bottom of it.

What Is Titanium Dioxide?

Perhaps you haven’t heard of titanium dioxide before. But if you have ever enjoyed coffee creamer in your cup of Joe, sucked on a ring pop when you were a child, or eaten a bowl of Jell-O, you have likely consumed this chemical without realizing it.

Titanium dioxide is used as a food pigment and anti-caking agent. Because this powder can enhance the color white, it is found in a wide variety of popular food, household items, and personal care items, like makeup, sunscreen, and toothpaste. Titanium dioxide is also used extensively in many commercial products, including paint, plastics, and paper.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has expressed concern over the use of this product, as it is not possible to rule out its potential to cause chromosomal damage, or genotoxicity. But in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to deem it safe for human consumption.

This different positions of the two agencies can be concerning, but one key detail to be mindful of is that the EFSA is not stating that ingestion of titanium dioxide will cause genotoxicity. Rather, it cannot rule out the possibility of this occurring.

“Different countries may choose to regulate certain ingredients, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are harmful,” Kacie Barnes, MCN, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian based in Dallas, Texas, told Verywell. “There is not good evidence that shows titanium dioxide is a known toxin at amounts found in foods in the US”

Wondering if your food contains titanium dioxide? Check the ingredient list on the food label. Per FDA regulations, titanium dioxide—like any other colorant or food ingredient—does have to be labeled on any food product.

Do We Need to Avoid Titanium Dioxide?

It is certainly tempting to go through your pantry and toss anything that has a speck of titanium dioxide in it. After all, if this product is truly toxic and it can cause chromosomal damage, who would want to be exposed to it in any amount?

But experts encourage people to take a deep breath. Eliminating the compound from your diet is probably unnecessary.

“First and foremost, the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC) lists titanium dioxide as possibly carcinogenic,” Taylor Wallace, PhD, CFS, FACN, food and nutrition scientist and Principal & Chief Executive Officer of Think Healthy Group, told Verywell. He explained that the categorization is based on rodent studies after very high exposures, which likely doesn’t correlate with human intake of titanium dioxide.

“Remember, a principle of toxicology is that everything is toxic; the dose is what matters,” Wallace said.

Wallace added that certain compounds can be toxic to animals and not humans. For example, while eating chocolate and grapes are generally safe for humans, they can be deadly to dogs. Just because titanium dioxide is linked to certain outcomes in rodents does not necessarily mean the same will hold true for humans.

“Titanium dioxide has a long history of safe use. We’ve been consuming it for decades—if not over a hundred years,” Wallace said.

Think About the Bigger Picture

Just like Wallace, nutrition expert Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CPT, creator of ShawSimpleSwaps.com, isn’t worried about Skittles. In fact, it’s a go-to stocking stuffer for her husband every Christmas.

“Honestly, eating something as healthy as a carrot can lead to toxicity when consumed in overabundance,” Shaw told Verywell. “I advise people to think about the totality of their diet—what they do on a regular basis—not just a few candies consumed every now and then.”

Bottom line? Regardless of whether you are eating a candy that is made with titanium dioxide or not, your candy intake should be minimal. Nobody is eating candy expecting it to provide nutritional benefits.

Removing the titanium dioxide from Skittles will still leave you with a candy made with corn syrup, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, and artificial colors—none of which are healthy.

If you are Skittles lover, keeping your intake at a reasonable quantity appears to be safe, especially if the bulk of your diet is balanced and nutrient-dense.

What This Means For You

If you enjoy eating Skittles, it doesn’t appear that there is any reason to stop altogether. Just limit your consumption and do your best to eat a nutritious diet otherwise.

Correction – August 1, 2022: This article was updated to clarify that the FDA requires companies to list titanium dioxide as an ingredient on food labels.

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