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…
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.
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 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”.