Titanium dioxide, also commonly referred to as Titanium Oxide is being increasingly used in the food processing industry as a whitening agent. It is used in skimmed milk as well as several other edible products. As its use rises many observers and scientists are also expressing concerns about its safety profile.
Before we can be sure about the safety profile of Titanium Oxide, we need to ask whether we are fully aware of all the effects of Titanium dioxide on the body, including those that may be seen over decades, as happens in the case of carcinogenic substances that promote cancer.
Natural vs. artificial agents
The difference between natural and artificial is that while the natural products are time tested by having been in existence for centuries, the man-made artificial products are still to be tested similarly. Those substances which are outright poisonous or highly toxic are not a problem, because the problems arising from them are immediately observed based on which their use can be avoided or restricted. The real problem is in the case of those substances that affect the mutation of genes of the cells because they do produce any immediate effect. This is what happens in the case of cancers.
Carcinogenic substances do not cause cancer in a few days or weeks. They have some impact on the body cells, usually involving the mutation of genes, that interferes with the control over self multiplication, but the effects are not immediately visible. The development of most cancers is a result of many steps of defects, which together suddenly start manifesting in the form of cancer. The process of carcinogenesis or cancer development may take many years, even many decades. Because of this, it is very difficult to certify whether any substance is safe or not.
Those substances that lead to cancer in the experimental setting are likely to have the carcinogenic effect in real life, but their effect in the real world may actually take several decades to decipher and understand and even then, it may not always be possible to ensure as to what is the real cause of cancer.
How safe is the use of Titanium Oxide?
In the case of Titanium dioxide, several factors call for caution in its use in food. First, it has been shown to have carcinogenic properties – it causes lung cancer in rats exposed to high concentrations, thereby implying a danger for workers in occupations that are prone to titanium dioxide inhalation, such as paint workers. For this very reason, it has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as an IARC Group 2B carcinogen meaning that it could be possibly a carcinogen to humans.
Now if it could be carcinogenic, its effects on people consuming it will depend on the total amount they consume, their vulnerability to cancer, and the time for which they consume it. The effects of this substance will hence differ from person to person and will be seen only after a long period. Remember, not every person who smokes develops lung cancer, and most who develop also do so only after a long period of excessive use.
As things stand today, the use of Titanium dioxide containing edible food is on the rise and will rise further unless we are cautious enough to ensure that we do not put the life of a common consumer in danger, just because we do not yet have proof that it is carcinogenic. It would be far more preferable to first indulge insufficient experimental and real-life testing and observations for changes that can result from the use of Titanium dioxide, and give it a safety certificate only when we are sure about it.