Watch out: Your coffee creamer could have titanium dioxide in it

If you’ve had coffee creamer, chewing gum, or a vanilla cupcake recently, there’s a good chance you’ve been eating titanium dioxide.

You might have heard about titanium dioxide because it’s used in sunscreens, paints, and plastics. So what in the world is it doing in your food? The chemical can make whites brighter in foods like ranch dressing, plus change the texture of some products, like chocolate and doughnuts. (In other stomach-turning food news, your sea salt probably contains plastic.)

Some people get nervous because the titanium dioxide in paints gives it a bad rap. The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health does say ultrafine titanium dioxide is a potential occupational carcinogen for humans. But breathing in titanium dioxide when you’re painting is totally different from when you eat it, says Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, LD, assistant professor in public health at the University of North Florida and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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Strangely delicious things to add to your coffee
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Strangely delicious things to add to your coffee
Butter

Butter in coffee is actually becoming a very popular trend, among celebrities like Shailene Woodley and college students alike. The mixture, termed "Bulletproof Coffee," is made by blending together coffee with a pat of butter and some coconut oil.

The nutritional benefits behind this seemingly odd drink include improved work performance, higher and prolonged energy levels, and weight loss. Use grass-fed butter, which is a heart-healthy superfood rich in antioxidants and body fat-burning vitamins. Who said butter wasn't good for you?

Salt
No, I don't mean sugar. Some people claim that adding sugar to coffee decreases its bitterness (we're looking at you, dining hall coffee). If you make your own coffee at home, try adding it to your coffee grounds before brewing, or to your cold brew to really maximize the flavor.
Cardamom
Make your morning coffee exotic by adding this Middle Eastern spice to your cup, which also acts as a neutralizer for the effects of caffeine. If you're one of those people who gets the jitters from coffee, I'm talking to you. Cardamom was also commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine to lift spirits, reduce pain, and induce a calm state of mind. As a bonus, it can also help stimulate your appetite and settle your stomach. This might just be the miracle spice you've been dreaming of.
Egg
And you thought the butter was weird. Scandanavian egg coffee is a traditional drink in parts of Scandinavia, Norway, and even the American Midwest. It's made by mixing a whole raw egg into coffee grounds, then boiling it in water. It results in a separation of the coffee grounds and the water, free of sediment or cloudiness. Straining it results in an amber-colored coffee that is only mildly bitter and that still contains the essential oils from the coffee beans. It's definitely an experiment worth trying.
Ice Cream
Because why not? I can personally say that ice cream is probably the greatest addition to coffee that's ever happened. It's the perfect substitute for cream and sugar, making your coffee that much sweeter and easier to drink if you actually hate coffee, but drink it anyway to stay awake. If your college dining hall has an ice cream machine, I would recommend topping off your cup of joe with a scoop of your flavor of choice, and revel in the luxury of your new favorite drink.
Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is used in pretty much everything these days, so why not add it to your coffee too? Advocates maintain that coconut oil enhances coffee, making it taste better and providing a whole lot of health benefits. A spoonful of the stuff will help speed up your metabolism, boost your immune system, and leave you feeling more satisfied.
Oatmeal
Breakfast and coffee in one? Yes, please. Decrease your morning routine by adding raw oatmeal into your hot cup of coffee until the oatmeal is cooked through. Add cinnamon, honey, or sugar for extra flavor and sweetness. As a bonus, there's one less set of dishes you have to do. It's a win-win.
Tonic Water
Bubbly iced coffee sounds weird but also somewhat appealing, right? This combination, popular in places like Sweden, is made by pouring cold brew or espresso over tonic water and ice. The resulting drink is said to be citrusy, crisp, and refreshing (especially on those hot summer days), with an additional caffeinated kick you'll probably need once exams start. By night, turn this drink into a cold brew gin and tonic, because you deserve it.
Lemon or Lime
First there was lemon in water, now there's lemon in coffee. Give your morning brew a citrusy kick by throwing in a fresh lemon or lime peel (but be careful not to swallow it). The peel will get rid of the bitter flavors of your coffee and enhance its sweetness. Another myth suggests that a lemon peel can clean your teeth after drinking coffee or espresso. Unfortunately, however, it can't prevent coffee breath.
Coca-Cola
The more caffeine the merrier. For the ultimate pick-me-up, pour some Coca-Cola into your iced coffee, making a drink that's said to be similar to vanilla Coke. The mixture results in a refreshing fizz that's bubbly and sure to keep you awake throughout most of the day. Be sure to use a medium to dark roast coffee in order to decrease dilution and counteract the sweetness of the soda.
Vanilla Extract
Pure vanilla extract is a great replacement for any artificial sweeteners or sugars that you would typically use in your coffee. Just a few drops of the stuff will sweeten your brew and add additional flavor minus all the fake preservatives in traditional flavor syrups. You could also try adding almond extract to experiment with flavor profiles.
Sweetened Condensed Milk
You're never going to want to put regular milk in your coffee again after you try it with this stuff. Sweetened condensed milk added to your coffee will make it sweeter and creamier, requiring no extra sugar. A traditional drink in Vietnam, it's super easy to make and way cheaper than any of the lattes at Starbucks you usually get.
Peanut Butter
This was actually an experiment of my own, as I have a slight huge obsession with peanut butter and would try to eat it with everything if I could. Peanut butter will give your hot coffee a nutty, creamy taste, and provide all the benefits that come with eating it. This includes added protein to help make you feel fuller longer, healthy fats, fiber, and potassium. You could even blend coffee and peanut butter with some other ingredients to create a satisfying morning coffee smoothie.
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“It really is comparing apples to oranges,” says Dr. Wright. “It’s different forms and very different amounts. The food titanium dioxide is very different than what they put into paint and other chemicals.”

In fact, the titanium dioxide mostly got its cancer-causing reputation because it’s in the form of tiny particles—not because of a chemical response, says Hans Plugge, SM, MSc, senior toxicologist with 3E Company and American Chemical Society expert. “It irritates the lung lining,” he says. “Eventually it causes enough injury that it causes a cancer-like response.” (Eat these foods to keep your own lungs healthy.)

Still, some consumers don’t like the sound of it, which is why there’s been a movement to get the additive out of the ingredient lists. In 2015, Dunkin Donuts took titanium dioxide out of its powdered doughnut recipe and So Delicious removed it from its coconut milk creamers. One concern from other brands is that without the coloring chemical keeping creamer bright white, people might get grossed out or confused. For instance, a creamer that’s a muddier white could lead coffee drinkers to over-pour it into their drinks. Not good—find out how many calories there really are in a sugary, creamy coffee.

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Price of coffee at 10 fast-food places
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Price of coffee at 10 fast-food places

McDonald's

McCafe premium roast coffee, small: $1.00

Burger King

Smooth roast coffee, small: $1.00

Krispy Kreme

Coffee (smooth, rich, or decaf), small: $1.59

Dunkin' Donuts

Hot coffee, small: $1.59

Tim Hortons

Coffee (original blend, dark roast or decaf): $1.59

Caribou Coffee

Coffee of the day, small: $1.69

Panera Bread

Hot coffee, small: $1.89

Starbucks

Freshly brewed coffee, tall: $1.85

Bruegger's Bagels 

House blend coffee, small: $1.99

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When it comes to your diet, the FDA concluded in 1966 it’s generally recognized as safe and says it’s fine in food, as long as it doesn’t make up more than one percent of the product’s weight. Still the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer deemed it a possible carcinogen for humans in 2010.

Before you start worrying about getting cancer from your cupcakes, though, Plugge says the IARC doesn’t differentiate between potential carcinogens for humans versus animals.

“They tend to make blanket statements based on animals,” he says. “There are a lot of chemicals that don’t do anything in rats but do something in humans and vice versa.”

But one recent study in the journal Scientific Reports is making some experts wonder if researchers should give titanium dioxide another look. In the study, rats that ingested titanium dioxide every day showed signs of a flared-up immune systems and pre-cancerous lesions. (Don’t miss these other 8 cancer-causing foods you should stop eating.)

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If titanium dioxide produces that same inflammatory response in humans, there’s a good reason to avoid eating it, says Dr. Wright.

“From a nutritional standpoint, we’re really investigating what things in our diet can contribute to inflammation and what can decrease inflammation,” she says. After all, inflammation has been linked with major diseases, from heart conditions to diabetes. (Find out more about how inflammation causes heart attacks.) Still, just because lab rats get inflammation from a chemical doesn’t mean humans will—especially in the small amounts allowed in our foods.

Even though any food you eat is less than one percent titanium dioxide, Dr. Wright says it could still be possible to get excess amounts. The additive used to be mostly for gum and toothpaste, but now it’s branched out to coffee creamers and pastries. “When we get into excess amounts is where you run the risk of getting too much of these things generally recognized as safe,” she says. Learn the signs that you’re eating too many additives.

But Dr. Wright has a bigger reason to avoid titanium dioxide: Most foods with the additive are sweets. “Candies, cakes, and doughnuts I wouldn’t necessarily recommend—or have only occasionally in the diet—because of other issues like trans fats and sugars,” she says. “It’s another reason to stay away from some of these foods … and emphasize the foods we know can take down inflammation.” Start with these 30 foods proven to prevent cancer.

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