If you notice a change in your Dunkin’ Donuts selection in the near future, credit goes to an organization named As You Sow. The self-styled advocacy group, headquartered in Oakland, CA, has been lobbying the chain to phase out the use of titanium dioxide, a controversial whitening agent used in powdered sugar.
The decision to do so was announced Thursday, a result of As You Sow’s submission of a shareholder request asking Dunkin’ Donuts parent Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc. to assess and reduce the use of nanomaterials such as titanium dioxide. After the company’s public announcement, As You Sow withdrew the proposal.
In a statement, Dunkin’ Brands chief communications officer Karen Raskopf said that although the company disagrees with As You Sow’s definition of nanoparticles, it nevertheless would stop using titanium dioxide. “The ingredient used in our powdered doughnuts does not meet the definition of ‘nanoparticle’ as outlined under FDA guidance,” Raskopf’s statement said. “Nevertheless, we began testing alternative formulations for this product in 2014, and we are in the process of rolling out a solution to the system that does not contain titanium dioxide.”
“This is a groundbreaking decision,” said Danielle Fugere, president and chief counsel of As You Sow. “Dunkin’ has demonstrated strong industry leadership by removing this potentially harmful ingredient from its doughnuts.”
Arguably, most people probably do not know what a nanomaterial is, or even that they’ve been eating some of them. Simply put, they are substances engineered to have extremely small dimensions. That very size has led some consumer groups and better-health advocates to claim they could be toxic to humans, potentially causing DNA and chromosomal damage, organ damage, inflammation, brain damage and genital malformations, among other problems, according to As You Sow.
However, the debate over ingesting nanomaterials no doubt will gain far more traction as more research is done. Currently, there is not a large body of scientific information on the topic. The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for example, does not regulate nanomaterials, saying it is not aware of any food ingredient on the nanometer scale for which there is available data to determine its use as Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS). In another example, many food industry entities disagree that there is any proven harm from the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), an extremely hot topic on social media where the opinions often become inflamed.
The case of Dunkin’ Donuts — which has hundreds of locations in Upstate New York — is just the latest decision by a major food purveyor to announce the cessation of using certain controversial ingredients, sometimes because of consumer demand rather than hard scientific evidence. Earlier in the week, McDonald’s announced it no longer will sell chicken that has been treated with antibiotics and will offer milk only from cows not treated with the artificial growth hormone rBST. The milk decision was made, according to Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America Supply Chain, because even though “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows, we understand this is something that’s important to our customers.”
The Chipotle Mexican Grill chain is phasing out use of foods containing GMOs, a preemptive decision since a number of states are considering legislation to block GOM usage. In 2014, the Subway chain that has more locations than any other chain globally, stopped using bread containing the controversial chemical azodicarbonamide.