Banned in France, enjoyed in the US
E171 is a common food additive employed to make things whiter. It consists basically of titanium dioxide particles in various shapes and sizes. At least one-third of these sizes are at the nanoscale, which refers to dimensions smaller than 10-9m. That's the millionth part of a meter. And that could be a problem.
Titanium dioxide is also widely used as a pigment. It has biocide effects and it is added to paints, types of cement, windows, tiles, or other products for its sterilizing, deodorizing, and anti-fouling properties. Nanosized titanium dioxide incorporated into outdoor building materials can substantially reduce concentrations of airborne pollutants such as volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.
The problem is when titanium dioxide enters the organism, especially in its tiniest form, the nanoparticles. Recent studies have indicated a potential carcinogenic effect of titanium dioxide nanoparticles. Therefore its human consumption is forbidden in France.
A new study on mice comes to confirm this strong correlation between foodborne titanium dioxide nanoparticles and adverse health effects.
A team of scientists from the University of Massachusetts Amherst lead by professor Hang Xiao, has fed E171 to two populations of mice as part of their daily diet. One group was fed a high-fat diet, the other group of mice was fed a low-fat diet.
The result? "In both the non-obese mice and obese mice, the gut microbiota was disturbed by both E171 and TiO2 NPs," Xiao says. "The nanosized particles caused more negative changes in both groups of mice." It is worth noting that the obese mice were more susceptible to the adverse effects of TiO2 nanoparticles, the additive causing them more damage.
E171, which makes products look whiter and more opaque, is found in such food as desserts, candy, beverages, and gum. As another study found, E171 exposure is two to four times higher in U.S. children than in adults.
"I think our results have a lot of implications in the food industry and on human health and nutrition." Hang Xiao, professor and Clydesdale Scholar of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the lead author of the study.
The researchers found E171 decreased cecal levels of short-chain fatty acids, which are essential for colon health, and increased pro-inflammatory immune cells and cytokines in the colon, indicating an inflammatory state.
If you think the results are easily dismissable since the study was performed on mice, you might want to think again. The study also measured levels of E171 in human stool samples, finding a wide range. Xiao says further research is needed to determine the health effects of long-term exposure to titanium dioxide. But the nanoparticles are there. In the gut. Our gut.