CHICAGO — California’s Assembly Bill 418 puts titanium dioxide, a food formulator’s go-to bright white and opacity ingredient, in the spotlight once again. The ingredient has been in and out of the safety conversation since the European Food Safety Authority banned its use as a food additive in the EU in 2021.

The bill would make California the first state to ban the sale and manufacture of foods containing titanium dioxide even though it would remain Generally Recognized as Safe by the US Food and Drug Administration at levels of no more than 1% of the food by weight.

Titanium dioxide is made from titanium, an element in the Earth’s crust. Titanium is classified as a transition metal on the periodic table and interacts with oxygen to form titanium oxides, commonly found in ores, indigenous dusts, sands and soils. In addition to being used in food and beverage, it is used in paint, Wite-Out and skin care products, namely sunscreen, as it functions as an ultraviolet light filter.

In the United States, titanium dioxide may not be used in foods with a standard of identity unless it is included in the standard. The standard for mozzarella cheese, for example, states coloring may be used to mask any natural yellow color in the curd. Monterey Jack cheese, on the other hand, does not have color included in its standard of identity. So, while it is a white cheese, color cannot be added to make it whiter, as may be done with mozzarella.

For non-standardized products, titanium dioxide is an effective way to correct off colors. More than 1,800 brand-name food products in the United States have titanium dioxide listed in the ingredient statement, something not required by the FDA, according to the Food Scores database maintained by Environmental Working Group. That’s because titanium dioxide is exempt from certification, which suggests it’s a natural color.

While the ingredient is approved for use in the United States, some companies have designated it unacceptable. Whole Foods Market, for example, includes it on the retailer’s “unacceptable ingredients list for foods.” Panera Bread included titanium dioxide on its “no-no list” ingredients published in 2015. Prior, it was used in the chain’s mozzarella cheese.

Formulators in North America and Europe are looking for solutions to replace titanium dioxide in everything from creamers to frostings and chewing gums to hard-shell candies. Replacing it can be challenging.

“It is difficult to replace the whitening and opacifying functional properties of the mineral titanium dioxide,” said Susan Frecker, senior application scientist, Oterra, Milwaukee, Wis. “In the US, calcium carbonate is allowed as a white color in some confectionery applications, and it is approved as GRAS as a food ingredient. It may be used as an ‘opacifying’ agent but not used as a color and it can be used for an opacifying agent only when the final color is not white.”  

As with many product reformulations, removing a single key ingredient requires a systems approach. The components of the system are dictated by the application and the finished product hue.

“We do not have one single and universal solution, rather multiple, customized color formulations in our portfolio (to replace titanium dioxide),” said Mathilde Brousse, natural colors solutions product leader, IFF Nourish, Neuilly-Sur-Seine Cedex, France.

ADM, Chicago, launched a portfolio of proprietary white solutions about a year ago.

“Certain alternatives to titanium dioxide, such as calcium carbonate, calcium phosphate and modified starch, can pose a range of formulation and labeling drawbacks,” said Kelly Newsome, senior marketing manager-colors. “However, with our new proprietary line, we provide manufacturers with stable and uniform whitening and opacity solutions that also meet clean label targets.”

The line is made from raw materials derived from familiar sources, including native corn starch. It is designed to support an array of solutions that meet distinct formulation needs.

“For instance, our patent-pending technology delivers a bright white intensity and can also act as a base hue for confections, helping overlayed colors pop,” Ms. Newsome said. “Plus, the solutions within our portfolio reduce the need for overprocessing in hard candies and panned confections, ensuring glossy surfaces and even coating. We also use our proprietary emulsion technology coupled with our proprietary white solutions to function as cloud agents for all types of beverages, creating exceptional uniformity and incredible stability and opacity.”

Blue California, Rancho Santa Margarita, offers titanium dioxide alternatives that are natural, allergen-free, non-GMO, vegan and with kosher and halal compliance, said Cuie Yan, vice president of encapsulation and application. The whitening agents have been tested in chewing gum compared to titanium dioxide.

“The whitening effect is just as remarkable,” Ms. Yan said. “The whiteness increases as the dosage increases.

“We’re noticing the best applications are in sugar-reduced drinks, such as coffee creamers, plant-based protein drinks, baby foods, etc. The textural quality of our titanium dioxide alternatives enhances mouthfeel while whitening.”