Should we be worried about E171?

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Do you remember the best-seller, E is for additives? Published in the early 1980s (and still available in a revised edition), this book shone the spotlight on food additives and focused public attention on the dreaded ‘e-numbers’. Since then, in the popular press, e-numbers have seemed to be almost synonymous with cancer, hyperactive toddlers and health issues.

E171 can be used in medicines as a whitener

An article on France3 caught my attention when the report suggested that E171, titanium dioxide, was due to be banned by the French government, but the decision had been revoked. Given the suggestion that E171 was carcinogenic, this news certainly warranted further investigation, even it was not strictly a vegan issue.

What is E171?

E171 – dioxyde de titane (titanium dioxide) is a food colourant widely used in products ranging from sweets, chewing gum and toothpaste to pastries and medicines. It has no nutritional value but is used as a whitener. As a powder, it is capable of being produced in very small particle sizes, known as nanoparticles, and it seems that these have raised concerns. Research has suggested that E171 is linked to immune system problems and causes pre-cancerous lesions in the intestines. The use of E171 is already banned in Germany.

Interesting fact: Titanium dioxide is extracted from the natural mineral Ilmenite, which was named after the Ilmen Mountains in Russia where it was first mined.

French proposed ban

The French government initially planned to impose a ban on the use of E171 as part of a law introduced at the end of 2018. This was due to pressure from over twenty non-government agencies such as Greenpeace, plus several major consumer organisations in France. The position was supported by research from the French Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA). However, another government body, the Agence nationale de sécurité et sanitaire de l’alimentation (ANSES) undertook research which drew different conclusions about the product’s safety. Hence, the government have withdrawn the plan to ban E171 until further European regulations are introduced.

Not surprisingly, the bodies that had lobbied for the ban were not happy with this decision. However, the good news is that many manufacturers and retailers have already withdrawn E171 from use, or have committed to doing so within the next few years. The French newspaper Le Monde has a searchable database of over 700 products that contain E171, so check it out if you are concerned about a specific product

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