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No, metal oxide nanoparticles in your food won’t kill you

Recently the American publication Mother Jones published an article on the dangers of food laced with tiny metal oxide particles. The article, however, is laced with errors and misinformation. The source…

Drink without worry. tambako, CC BY

Recently the American publication Mother Jones published an article on the dangers of food laced with tiny metal oxide particles. The article, however, is laced with errors and misinformation.

The source material for the article came from a report by the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, an online database of nanotechnology-based consumer products and a peer-reviewed paper published in 2012. However, the analysis of the information is flawed.

Tom Philpott, author of the Mother Jones article, claims nanoparticles – defined as particles smaller than 100 nanometres, which is a thousandth of the width of a human hair – are used because they behave differently from other particles. He is worried that scientists still don’t know how dangerous these differences make them. He also claims that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has done nothing to slow down their rapid move into the food supply.

Bad journalism

The inventory Philpott cites is the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory, which I helped establish in 2006 as a way better understand the increasing number of consumer products that were using engineered nanomaterials. It provides a useful but only qualitative sense of what was being used where, and relies on intermittent web searches and other sources of intelligence. The inventory was never meant to be comprehensive or authoritative.

In 2013 the inventory was updated to include further information on products and materials where it was available. As part of this update, products from a peer review paper published the previous year were included – a study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, reported an analysis of nearly 90 food products for the presence of the material titanium dioxide.

Titanium dioxide has been used widely in foods for decades as a whitener and a base for other colors. It is considered to be an inert and safe material. The US FDA allows food products to contain up to 1% titanium dioxide without the need to include it on the ingredient label, as long as the substance added conforms to stringent levels of purity.

Usually referred to as Food Grade titanium dioxide, or additive E171 in Europe, the white powder is typically made up of particles a few hundred nanometers in diameter – a particle size that reflects visible light extremely well. In the 2012 paper researchers bought a selection of white or pale processed foods and tested them for the presence of titanium dioxide. They discovered that some products contained as high as 0.4% titanium dioxide by weight, and others as little as 0.0002% titanium dioxide by weight. The researchers also measured the particle size of the titanium dioxide particles in some products, and found the majority of particles to be larger than 100 nanometers in diameter, as would be expected for food grade titanium dioxide.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory currently lists 96 food products that contain nanoparticles. Of these, 89 are taken directly from the paper in Environmental Science and Technology. Of the remaining seven, four are no longer commercially available as far as can be ascertained, one is not an actual product, and one is a dietary supplement. This leaves just one nanotechnology-based food product in the inventory that is still available and doesn’t contain food-grade titanium dioxide.

(Na)no harm

These 89 titanium dioxide containing products represent only a tiny fraction of products that have been available since before the term nanotechnology was popularised. And while they undoubtedly contain some small particles – most powders contain at least a few particles that are nanometer sized – they are there to ensure that the food products have bright, vibrant colors.

But in their report Friends of the Earth used the Consumer Product Inventory to claim there has been:

…a ten-fold increase in unregulated, unlabeled ‘nanofood’ products on the American market
over the past six years. In 2008 we found eight food and beverage products with nano-ingredients on the market. In 2014, the number of nanofood and beverage products we know to be on the market has grown to 94.

Their list matches the Consumer Products Inventory, including those items that are either no longer commercially available, or not actual food products. And given that the inventory was updated recently, it is easy to see where the “ten-fold increase” comes from. If the journalist had got in touch with the founders of the inventory, it would have been clear that such an increase says nothing about the real number of food products using titanium dioxide.

Safety first

As someone who works on the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, I can see how errors in translation crept into this story. The 2012 paper was addressing a legitimate concern that little is know about how much titanium dioxide is in the processed food chain. The Consumer Products Inventory provides important and unique insights into nanoparticles being used in products. Friends of the Earth have every right to ask what is known about the potential risks in what we’re eating. And reporters like Philpott have a professional obligation to highlight issues of concern and interest to their readers.

Each player in this case has played a legitimate role. But in this case, Philpott did not take the effort of speaking to experts to hear their views. Instead he bought the line that Friends of the Earth had in their report and wrote an article that only spreads misinformation.

Health journalism is tricky business. Journalists should be extra careful before putting out information in the public domain. They are right to highlight genuine issues, but the least they can do is get experts to weigh in on the debate. Simply basing a report on a one-sided view, which most scientists wouldn’t even agree on, is poor journalism.


Next, read this: The seven deadly sins of health and science reporting

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20 Comments sorted by

  1. Vern Wall

    Retired engineer

    Sadly, the average consumer is no longer able to trust the people who set such standards. The evidence is clear and long standing: laws protect corporations from their customers, not vice versa. And the corporations collect taxes for no charge, so you can be sure the lawmakers take good care of them. Public schools no longer teach civics, so the citizens are unable to defend themselves. In politics, the lack of self defense is the unforgivable sin.

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    1. Andrew Maynard

      Director, University of Michigan Risk Science Center at University of Michigan

      In reply to Vern Wall

      I suspect there are a lot of corporations who would disagree with this following EPA's proposed CO2 rule, but that's by the bye.

      The FDA is legally responsible for protecting and advancing public health, and there is strong evidence from their implementation of food, drug and cosmetics regulations that thy achieve this well in many areas - without a doubt, less people get sick and more people are healthy because of the FDA. Of course, the regs and the agency are far from perfect - on one hand people argue that drug development regs stifle innovation, while on the other hand dietary supplement regs are not particularly protective. But it's hard to see how the TiO2 reg linked to in the article protects corporations over customers.

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  2. Gregory Crocetti

    Science Educator at Scale Free Network

    Andrew, I'm really trying to draw some meaning from your article which remotely justifies the ridiculous headline?!
    The best meaning I can make our of your rant is: because Mother Jones reported an 10-fold increase of food products containing nano-titanium dioxide - using a potentially incorrect figure from a report by Friends of the Earth - their journalism is "laced with errors and misinformation" and therefore wrong. That seems about it to me.
    Friends of the Earth and Mother Jones raise serious…

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    1. Andrew Maynard

      Director, University of Michigan Risk Science Center at University of Michigan

      In reply to Gregory Crocetti

      Thanks for the comment Gregory.

      There are serious concerns surrounding the acceptably safe use of engineered nanomaterials and other nanomaterials, which is why myself and many others have been actively engaged in research and dialogues in this area for many years. But without evidence-grounded discussion and analysis, the chances of potentially dangerous decisions being made is exacerbated - particularly if misinformed fears end up drawing attention and concern away from more worrying materials…

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    2. Gregory Crocetti

      Science Educator at Scale Free Network

      In reply to Andrew Maynard

      Thanks for the detailed reply.
      And thanks for taking the time to acknowledge one of the many research findings suggesting the potential for harm e.g. "nanoscale titanium dioxide particles may potentially cross the intestinal wall, and may possibly modulate immune responses".

      But I find it strange that - on the one hand - you can claim:
      "there are serious concerns surrounding the acceptably safe use of engineered nanomaterials" and "Of course, these points do not prove that titanium dioxide particles…

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    3. Andrew Maynard

      Director, University of Michigan Risk Science Center at University of Michigan

      In reply to Gregory Crocetti

      Hi Gregory,

      Let me try and take your points one at a time:

      1. The seeming tension between the headline stating “nano particles in your food won’t kill you” and the statement “these points do not prove that titanium dioxide particles in food are safe.

      The headline counters hyperbole and speculation over the dangers of nanopartices, and is designed to be provocative - seems it worked! Of course, you can argue that a literal and absolute interpretation is not correct - eat enough nanopartiicles…

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    4. Blair Donaldson
      Blair Donaldson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Researcher & Skeptic

      In reply to Gregory Crocetti

      Sadly a lot of journalism these days seems to work on the, "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story" principle. Never mind that the stories can cause unnecessary concern. They have to keep the advertisers happy.

      Gregory, can you point to any peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate irrefutable detrimental effects due to nano (compound/element)?

      I've got no problems with people highlighting potential concerns but there should be a little perspective in the reporting along with basic error checking.

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    5. Gregory Crocetti

      Science Educator at Scale Free Network

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      When you say 'irrefutable detrimental effects'...I need to assume you're not talking about experimental results with humans. Because those experiments are still underway in societies around the world, and besides...they're not controlled (thanks to government inability to regulate effectively with mandatory registers or labelling), so scientists often sadly turn to experiments using animals.
      Here, animal experiments with carbon nanotubes have indeed demonstrated detrimental effects, including:
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23899865
      Happy reading.

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    6. Gregory Crocetti

      Science Educator at Scale Free Network

      In reply to Gregory Crocetti

      Oh, and Blair - if you care for experimenting on smaller forms of life...I think you'll have no trouble finding loads of detrimental effects on many different populations of bacteria.
      Have you heard of nitrogen fixing bacteria? They help certain plants fix nitrogen from the atmosphere around the roots of some plants.
      It turns out that some nanomaterials either kills these microbes or interrupts this delicate process, as recently demonstrated in PNAS :
      http://www.pnas.org/content/109/37/E2451/1
      Which is a shame, because I liked food....

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    7. Blair Donaldson
      Blair Donaldson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Researcher & Skeptic

      In reply to Gregory Crocetti

      Gregory, thanks for the link. Yes, I was referring to human studies. You raise a good point about the lack of government will to mandate registers and labelling which I'm sure would help settle these concerns sooner than will likely occur.

      It would be interesting to know whether that there is much difference between organic and inorganic nano particles ability to affect organisms.

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    8. Andrew Maynard

      Director, University of Michigan Risk Science Center at University of Michigan

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      Just to add to Gregory's comments, there's a growing body of research exploring how various different forms of nanoscale materials can potentially cause harm if they interact with specific biological systems in sufficient quantities - the Nano EHS Virtual Journal is a good place to start (http://icon.rice.edu/virtualjournal.cfm). Just like anything else we come into contact with or release to the environment, these materials can be harmful if not used sensibly.

      However, there are five important…

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    9. Chris Kelly

      Publicly funded Ag/Hort Research Techie.

      In reply to Andrew Maynard

      I find it amusing to see the reaction to the headline when Friends of the Earth refer to genetically modified foods as "frankenfoods". They can sure dish it out but cannot even accept a headline statement that succinctly provides the scientific reality as we currently understand.

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    10. Blair Donaldson
      Blair Donaldson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Researcher & Skeptic

      In reply to Chris Kelly

      I agree Chris. On the issue of GM foods, Friends of the Earth are guilty of distortion, exaggeration and deception.

      Whether they like it or not, GM foods are going to be even more relied upon to feed communities around the world.

      As for nano particles, I'm happy to await further research but the propaganda demonising GM food is just pathetic.

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    11. Chris Kelly

      Publicly funded Ag/Hort Research Techie.

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      Maybe Andrew should also be commended on his diplomatic responses, he appears to give FOE and Philpott some benefit of the doubt in their intentions but based on my experience with them, they do not deserve it.

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  3. Andrew Maynard

    Director, University of Michigan Risk Science Center at University of Michigan

    Friends of the Earth noted on Twitter following this article that the European Chemical Agency (ECHA)is currently reviewing the safety of titanium dioxide. I thought it worth posting links to the relevant information.

    Within the European Registration, Evaluation Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations, member states can nominate candidate substances for the Community Rolling Action Plan (CoRAP) of substance evaluation - essentially pushing key substances up the list for risk…

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  4. Alaria Sands

    Retired

    One need not rely upon information from FOE or Mother Jones to know that nano scale titanium dioxide is in our food supply and that there are no labeling requirements here in the USA; the textbooks and websites on Nanotoxicology are full of confirming information on this, including strong reservations from credible scientists about the safety of nano scale materials in food.

    An essay by Dr. Arpad Pusztai and Susan Bardocz titled "The Future of Nanotechnology in Food Science and Nutrition: Can…

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  5. Alaria Sands

    Retired

    Sorry, had several papers open on tabs and put in the wrong link on the ParticleandFibreToxicology.com website. The paper I meant to cite was
    "Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles: a review of current data" (2013) link here:
    http://www.particleandfibretoxicology.com/content/10/1/15

    Regarding the FDA status of nano TiO2 as GRAS:
    "FDA: Listing of color additives exempt from certification. Code of Federal Regulations, Title-21, Foods and Drugs. 21 CFR 73.2575, Washington D.C., US Government Printing Office; 2002.

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    1. Andrew Maynard

      Director, University of Michigan Risk Science Center at University of Michigan

      In reply to Alaria Sands

      Thanks for the links. Without a doubt there is a rich seam of published research on nano TiO2 toxicity. The potential hazards of inhaled nano TiO2 are relatively well addressed. But little is know about whether studies are relevant to ingestion - just because a substance is cytotoxic in vitro does not mean that it is harmful if ingested, and great care needs to be taken in how these studies are understood and applied.

      Against this backdrop you also need to consider that a) manufacturers have been using pigment grade TiO2 in food for years, with no indications of adverse health effects, and that b) there is no economic or functional incentive for them to swap to nano-TiO2 in these uses - they'd just be using a material that is more expensive and less effective.

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    2. Gregory Crocetti

      Science Educator at Scale Free Network

      In reply to Andrew Maynard

      Come on Andrew, you're not seriously going to expect any of the readers here to swallow the "it's been used for years with no adverse effects" argument??
      There are simply no meaningful control groups against which to compare the use of TiO2 in foods...so this argument is simply misleading.

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