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 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”.

Don’t Mess with Jack!

This week, the original junk food Cracker Jack introduces a new look to its packaging, and – brace yourself – no more “prize inside”.  The tiny toys synonymous with the brand since 1912 have been replaced with QR code stickers, which connect to games on your phone when scanned.  Farewell to those temporary tattoos, finger-sized comic books, and decoder rings; – another slice of Americana is gone.  Check out Facebook’s Cracker Jack page if you want a sampling of the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the news.

41 - click bait

Cracker Jack’s announcement shamelessly reduces the “toy surprise inside” to mere click bait.  Akin to so many Facebook posts, the allure of click bait is to discover the rest of the story.  In the process you get a healthy dose of advertising.  Click bait never gets my attention, nor will Cracker Jack’s QR codes.  The thrill of the prize is gone.

Cracker Jack has a special place in my heart.  My great uncle became synonymous with the treat when he showed up at family gatherings with enough boxes for his dozen grandnephews and nieces.  More significantly, I hid my wife’s engagement ring inside the prize packet of a box of Cracker Jack just before my proposal.  She used to be a Crunch ‘n Munch fan until she opened that particular “toy”.

Cracker Jack is another link to the past that has suffered never-go-back changes.  The boxes are smaller now (in fact, the latest packaging is not even a box), and the ratio of peanuts to popcorn has increased.  It’s the typical product manipulation that has you thinking you’re consuming the same thing you did ten years ago.  Like ice cream, where brands are now sold in smaller containers designed to look like the standard half-gallon.  Or fast-food “quarter-pound” burgers that are no longer as big, yet still qualify by definition.  Perhaps the most obvious example: Oreos have less filling and thinner cookies than the originals.  Ironically, today’s “Double-Stuff” are probably more like the “singles” from a generation ago.

Changes like Cracker Jack hit me hard, not only because I’m paying more for less but because the tampering seems like an injustice.  Why not keep the original and charge more?  I’d pay.  And I’m not alone.  Wikipedia claims the New York Yankees tried to replace Cracker Jack with Crunch ‘n Munch at home games ten years ago, but the public outcry forced them to switch back within a matter of days.  Don’t mess with Jack!

Speaking of baseball, Cracker Jack is immortalized in the lyrics of “Take Me Out To the Ballgame”, sung in the middle of seventh inning stretches.  I wonder if today’s generation knows what they’re singing about with “…buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack”?  Even if they do they’re singing about a different product now, including the updated images of mascots Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo.  No doubt Cracker Jack’s founder had that in mind before he passed away in 1937.  The original Sailor Jack is carved on his tombstone.  Now there’s something they can never change.