SA will not ban a food additive linked to possible DNA damage just yet

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E171 is a common artificial colouring used to whiten cakes.
E171 is a common artificial colouring used to whiten cakes.
Lewis Whyld/Getty Images

The National Department of Health says E171 - a common artificial colouring additive - does not pose a health risk for consumers and its use will not be banned in South Africa, for now.

The additive - used to whiten and brighten products like cake icing, sweets, white sauces, medicine and cosmetics - was found to contain titanium dioxide nanoparticles. According to research by the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA), the particles have the potential to cause DNA damage. The authority also couldn’t establish a safe level for daily intake of E171. 

EU member states have since agreed to ban E171 from 2022 as a result of the EFSA’s findings.

The bans follow one imposed by France after research found that titanium dioxide may cause pre-cancerous lesions in lab rats.

But South African consumers can expect to find the additive in their products after the Department of Health (DoH) said its use will continue following an evaluation by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), made up by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.

After its evaluation, the JECFA gave titanium dioxide an acceptable daily intake of "not limited" or "not specified".

The DoH's spokesperson, Foster Mohale, explained that a "not specified" daily intake is normally assigned to food additives with "very low toxicity".

"Based on the available data the total dietary intake of the substance, arising from its use at the levels necessary to achieve the desired effect, does not, in the opinion or assessment of JECFA, represent a risk to human health," Mohale said.

He added that titanium dioxide is allowed for use in South African food products, as per the Good Manufacturing Practice. But its use will be reviewed if the JECFA has re-evaluated its safety when new evidence is available.

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