Dunkin’ Donuts Gets Rid of Sunscreen Chemical in Powdered Topping

Tiny particles of titanium dioxide are used to whiten food—but some say it’s toxic.

Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins. (Photo: Flickr)

Mar 9, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Making powdered sugar is, in essence, a simple process. It’s just finely ground normal sugar, the crystals pulverized, as the name suggests, into a powder. But to finely dust so many confections in a blanket of sugary whiteness, things get a little more complicated.

For one, the fine texture of powdered sugar can cause it to easily clump together, which is why anti-caking agents are commonly used. Then there’s the color issue: Grinding up sugar can make it look a little drab. So a whitening agent is used to make sure those powdered doughnuts gleam. At Dunkin’ Donuts, that involved including teeny-tiny particles of titanium dioxide in the toppings. That is, until last Friday, when the chain announced that it would remove the additive, which the consumer advocacy group As You Sow says can be toxic.

As far as health and doughnuts are concerned, a metal-based additive is probably the last thing that would come to mind when considering eating one. The reason many of us opt not to start every day with a coffee and a doughnut is more due to sugar and fat than to anything else. But the move by Dunkin’ represents a step away from industry trends over recent years, which have seen increased use of titanium dioxide in foods as well as sunscreen, toothpaste, and other consumer products. Titanium dioxide itself appears not to pose any health risks—as Ryan Bradley writes in a recent Fortune article, “Titanium dioxide is chemically inert and has for decades entered humans, often during surgery and frequently as part of a joint replacement.”

Rather, it’s a question of scale. Groups like As You Sow, which pushed Dunkin’ to remove the additive, says it’s a nanoparticle. (Dunkin’ and the FDA, which regulates food additives, disagree.) When shrunk to such a small scale, titanium dioxide can start showing up in weird, potentially troubling places in the body, as Bradley described in detail in Fortune.

While Dunkin’ may argue that adding microscopic bits of titanium dioxide to its powdered sugar doesn’t present any risk to consumers, the question of who is right in this instance wouldn’t appear to matter at the end of the day—because the customer is always right. And so is the shareholder.

“Dunkin’ Brands understands that investors are increasingly interested in the sustainability of the companies in which they invest,” Karen Raskopf, a company spokesperson, told USA Today in a statement, responding to the shareholder proposal regarding titanium dioxide that As You Sow had put forward. “As part of our ongoing stakeholder engagement process, we recognize the importance of engaging in productive, ongoing dialogues with our investors to understand and address their concerns, as appropriate."

Powdered doughnuts, dusted with a fine, white coating of sugar, will continue to be sold at Dunkin’ Donuts across the country.