Clash of the Titanium

The Mohs Scale (which you have no reason to be familiar with) is a 10-point scale used to measure the hardness of natural substances. For example, silver and gold can be shaped into jewelry with the easy tapping of a hammer, so they only rate a 2.5 on the Mohs. On the other hand, diamonds are so hard they’re used to make drill bits and saw blades. The Mohs Scale rates a diamond a 10 out of 10. And then there’s titanium, which rates a 6. Not diamond-hard but still pretty hard, right? So what in God’s name is titanium doing in a bag of Skittles candies?

You know it’s a slow week of headlines when an article on Skittles earns a spot in my newsfeed.  As if we don’t have enough high-profile lawsuits floating around (ex. Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder, Monsanto’s “Roundup”, Cleveland Brown QB Deshaun Watson’s, uh, “indiscretions”), we’re now dragging the “taste the rainbow” candies into court.  Why?  Because Skittles contain titanium (dioxide) and that means the colorful little guys could be toxic if ingested. Oh.

So this suit may not be so frivolous after all…

The “substance” of the Skittles lawsuit

And yet, if scientists are to be believed, we could be talking much ado about nothing.  Titanium dioxide (TiO2) can be toxic above a certain amount (operative words: can be).  The amount you’ll find in Skittles is below this amount.  But the consumer who filed the lawsuit uses the European Union (EU) as his “Exhibit A”, saying they’ve banned titanium dioxide as a food additive altogether.  He is correct, except the EU banned TiO2 as a measure of caution, not as a statement of “toxic or not toxic”.  Safe to say the ingredients in your Skittles won’t be changing anytime soon, and you can give in to the occasional sugar rush without worry.

I haven’t had a bag of Skittles in a long time.  My last taste was probably from the leftovers of the bowl of candy we handed out many, many Halloweens ago.  It never occurred to me to wonder how they make Skittles so brightly colored.  Yep, titanium oxide.  Without it they’d be slightly duller, like M&M’s.  Subconsciously you might not find them as appealing.

“Red” had a ten-year absence

Speaking of M&M’s, TiO2 has a parallel with a substance called “Red Dye No. 2” (RD2).  In the 1970s the Soviets (as the Russians were called back then) created a mass conniption fit when they claimed the RD2 caused cancer, which was a common food additive back then.  M&M’s was forced to remove their red-colored candy, even though it contained no RD2.  The claim was never proven but it took another decade before the public conscience allowed red M&M’s to be added back to the bag.  If this lawsuit gets enough press we may see the same impact to Skittles.  Duller colors, at least until people make peace with TiO2 again.

To be clear, I can take or leave Skittles these days.  Unnatural-looking, chewy candies are an obsession from my childhood, far removed from my relatively healthy diet today.  But there was a time, no doubt when I seemed intent on spending more time in the dentist’s chair.  Skittles didn’t hit America’s supermarket shelves until 1979 but by then I was already into several of their colorful counterparts, like Starburst, Jujyfruits, Now and Later, Mike and Ike, and Jujubes (the ultimate stick-to-your-teeth candy).  Oh, and anything with the word “licorice” in it.

“Skittles”

Skittles may revive my childhood memories, but not just because of the candy.  “Skittles” was also a clever wooden game (way before anything electronic), where you’d pull the string on a top and send it spinning down a board, knocking down pins for points.  Imagine, young people, a game where not only are no electronics involved, but no hands either.  You’d just pull the rip cord on the top, then sit back and watch.  Yep, kids actually had an attention span back then.

The other day in the supermarket checkout line, I made an uncharacteristic impulse purchase of a box of Good & Plenty.  The little pink and white candies are essentially black licorice with a candy coating and they’ve been on the shelves almost a hundred years longer than Skittles.  I’m surprised Good & Plenty hasn’t faced a lawsuit of its own.  The candies are the same size and shape as your standard prescription drug – bright little pills.  Then again, they’re not as bright as Skittles.  Yes, they may be junk food but at least they don’t contain any of the “nasty” TiO2.

Some content sourced from the Scientific American article, “Are Skittles Toxic from Titanium Dioxide?”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

17 thoughts on “Clash of the Titanium

  1. Skittles, I had not heard of this lawsuit. Interesting and I completely forgot about the POOR red M&M that had to disappear for a while. It’s funny, with M&Ms, I ALWAYS prefer the light colored ones (orange, yellow, red, green) eat them FIRST and really don’t care for the brown ones. I could actually throw them out, I’m sure they taste the same, but I don’t like the brown ones. Go figure. I didn’t realize they still made Good and Plenty! So… did they still taste like you remember?

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    1. The color preferences with M&M’s are so random. The green ones were supposedly an aphrodisiac. And now we know the red ones were always perfectly innocent – ha. Good & Plenty taste remarkably the same all these years later. So many snacks from my childhood are mere shadows of their former selves these days you almost expect them to taste different than you remember. All about saving money.

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  2. Hmm – I’ve never tasted Skittles Dave and I hadn’t heard about the lawsuit. It’s difficult to keep up with all the lawsuits from items we have used in the past or currently use. I have never sprayed sunblock in my hair, but Banana Boat sunscreen for hair was found to contain benzene and made the news this week. That’s interesting about the titanium dioxide lawsuit. I think of titanium and think of the materials used for joint replacement, solid and guaranteed (and hoped) to last many years – I hope the titanium dioxide isn’t found in those titanium joint replacements. I have had Good & Plenty over here in the States. In Canada, the Licorice Allsorts were more common (that British influence I guess) and I know you and I discussed the real black licorice candy which is brown inside. A special treat as a child for me was getting the black licorice Scottie dogs. Even if they were a tad bitter, as a kid who was not allowed to eat candy, it was a treat. I remember the scare with the red dye. My mom and I used to like the red licorice Twizzlers – did we finish the package we had of them after that news? Red lipstick was also shunned by many women after the red dye stories made the headlines.

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    1. I’m with you on titanium, Linda. I think of it as a super-strong metal for things like bicycle frames and artificial joints. It was a little startling to learn a chemical variant was in “foods” (junk, really). Just one of a long list of other additives we don’t know much about.

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      1. Oh, and Good & Plenty is a poor excuse for licorice. In fact, I’m sure there’s no licorice in the candy at all. 100% artificial. As a licorice aficionado I know there are many, many better options.

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      2. Scary stuff Dave. We just had a toxic metals spill in the Huron River. Same thing happened last year. Wildlife are endangered and is the water recreation season, so affects people too.

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  3. My candy of choice going to see a movie was Hot Tamales, I’m sure they have lots of chemicals… I also love licorice and peanut m&ms, but I try not to keep them in my apartment. It is sad that the US doesn’t ban all the additives like they do in the EU/other countries, and they wonder why so many Americans have health issues…

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    1. I was impressed to learn about the EU ban on TiO2, Lyssy. Boggles my mind a dozen or more countries can agree to a decision in the name of better health, yet the U.S. chooses not to go along? I suspect corporate muscle. Meanwhile (not in the name of better health), I do love Hot Tamales. Probably the catalyst to my love of all things spicy.

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  4. Most of the ingredients in skittles are not particularly ‘healthy’. There sure doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Titanium Dioxide at these levels is any worse than the corn syrup, hydrogenated palm oil and artificial ingredients that make up the rest of the candy.

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    1. Excellent point, Margy. Even if they figured out a way around the TiO2, they’re never going to substitute the HFCS (AKA “the devil’s candy”). The artificial this-and-that in these junk foods makes it easy to pass on the temptation.

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  5. I’ll have to look for Good and Plenty now……if they still have it here. I liked I when I was a kid although I wasn’t generally a fan of plain licorice. It might have been the ads and the slogan….

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  6. Little known fact: titanium dioxide was the compound that finally provided a commercially viable white paint for the auto industry. DuPont couldn’t make it in quantity until the early 50s, which is why the first mass-produced white car did not happen until 1952. I wonder if a little white pigment juices up the colors of the coatings? I guess it’s better than lead, right?

    I like skittles but don’t get them often.

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