By Karen Angelo
Added as a whitener and anti-caking agent to thousands of food products such as candy and salad dressing, titanium dioxide use is on the rise even though research in animals shows a link to increased risk of intestinal inflammation, accumulation in organs and its ability to damage DNA.
This year, the European Union banned the substance in food. The candymaker Mars, Inc. was recently sued for not phasing out titanium dioxide from its products, including the popular-with-kids candy Skittles.
How much titanium dioxide do people consume? And is high consumption of the compound related to poor gut health? Assoc. Prof. Kelsey Mangano of the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences has received a three-year $496,885 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to find out.
“Scientists know that an unhealthy gut can cause inflammation and lead to chronic diseases, such as obesity, heart disease and colon cancer,” says Mangano. “With titanium dioxide so pervasive in packaged foods, the results of our research could inform public health decision-making and policy regarding its use as a food additive in the U.S.”
The research will measure levels of titanium dioxide in the stool of 80 adults. For those with the highest titanium dioxide exposure, researchers will evaluate if participants have poor gut health and an unhealthy gut microbiome compared to participants with very little exposure to the food additive. Ph.D. pharmaceutical sciences student Nick Troisi ’20, ’21 is leading the project under the direction of Mangano.
Building Upon Previous Student Research
Mangano credits Christianto Putra ’21, who graduated from the Ph.D. pharmaceutical sciences program and is now a scientist at SeqWell in Beverly, Massachusetts, with conducting a pilot study on titanium dioxide for the initial data needed for the USDA grant.
In 2021, Putra recruited over 100 people from UMass Lowell to document their food intake for his dissertation research. He analyzed the content of titanium dioxide in each participant’s stool sample as a marker of overall dietary exposure to the food additive.
The results showed that titanium dioxide was detected in every single analyzed stool sample, suggesting widespread exposure to this food additive. Consumption of food groups such as yeast bread, rolls, milk desserts, sauces, gravies, drinks and creamers was associated with greater titanium dioxide in stool, the study found.
Using UMass Lowell’s lab equipment, Putra found titanium dioxide in many different types of foods, across both generic and name brands. Of further concern, the compound was not disclosed in the ingredients list of the majority of food products he analyzed.
“Most food additives are often included in general descriptors on the food label, such as ‘color added,’ or listed as an anti-caking agents or filler, which is legal under nutrition labeling exemptions,” noted Putra, the lead author of an article on the research that was published in the July 2022 issue of the Journal of Nutrition.
“Chris saw a research gap in this area and wanted to quantify titanium dioxide exposure in humans using stool, something that hasn’t been done before,” says Mangano. “It was his idea and the reason why we received funding from the USDA to continue this important work.”
In the USDA study, the research team is using improved methods to assess fecal output and analyzing the difference in inflammatory and leaky gut markers between people with high and low titanium dioxide exposure.