Why Altering the Powdered Donuts at Dunkin' Donuts Is Bad for Innovation

04/01/2015 12:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

When was the last time you ate a powdered donut from Dunkin' Donuts? Well, the next time you have one, it may be a bit different.

Earlier this month, Dunkin' Donuts made the decision to replace the whitening agent in their powdered donuts in response to pressure from the advocacy group As You Sow. What was the driving reason? Concerns that the titanium dioxide materials used to give the white powder its infamous appearance and texture were "nanoscale" in size (where the particles had diameters of hundreds of nanometers (nm), about 100 times smaller than a human hair) and therefore dangerous. However, titanium dioxide particles as a brightener or colorant are ubiquitous in a range of processed foods (e.g. candy, cookies, bread) to keep them looking fresh. Also, pigment-grade titanium dioxide particles found in foods are usually between 200-400 nm in size and not "nano" according to the accepted definition of a nanoparticle.

I am Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University, and I teach a freshman seminar on "the Hope and Hype of Nanotechnology." We cover topics like the fundamental properties of nanomaterials, some of their uses, and the implications of those applications on society. For example, this year students debated the pros and cons of nanotechnology in medicine as well as the military. Also, students prepared educational videos on diverse topics such as titanium and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreen; the anti-bacterial properties of silver nanoparticles; and why carbon nanotubes show such remarkable mechanical properties in airplane bodies and sports equipment.

One of my goals for the course is to train students in critical thinking skills as well as the scientific principles underlying nanoscience to enable them to have an informed opinion about current events. When I brought up the Dunkin' Donuts case in class, they were eager to discuss it. Some well-regarded scholars like Andrew Maynard, Director of Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, felt the step that Dunkin' Donuts took was unnecessary.

By and large, my young scholars agreed for the following reasons.

Whenever new applications of science like nanotechnology emerge, there will always be concerns, especially if the science seems intrinsically hard to understand. In the "nano" world, where the properties of materials change as they become smaller, there is often fear of what the future might entail. In the Dunkin' Donuts case and the use of nanoparticles in foods, perfectly good questions regarding their safety arise. How can we be sure that objects this tiny aren't harmful? And how well can we even observe their features?

But, the fact that nano is new doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. Scientists are working every day to answer these important questions. While it is true that titanium dioxide in high concentrations has been found to be harmful, scientists have not discovered evidence corroborating As You Sow's claim that the miniscule particles are toxic to humans. Titanium dioxide is used more frequently in the average supermarket's products than most consumers would expect.

If this situation sounds familiar, it is. The public opinion of nanomaterials is in close parallel with perceptions of genetically modified (GM) foods, which have been made from organisms that were engineered to have specific characteristics. Most items in the grocery store, although not labeled as such, are in fact genetically modified. And similarly, despite the hype about the dangers of GM foods, the vast majority of scientists regard them as safe and have not discovered any evidence of toxicity.

When As You Sow raised concerns regarding titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in Dunkin' Donuts' powdered sugar, the activist group likely did not perform the proper research to investigate the health effects of the substance. This is especially true considering that the titanium dioxide particles do not even satisfy the FDA regulatory approach of "nanoparticles." There should be extensive, conclusive research done proving that these nanoparticles are harmful before threatening the image of companies through bad press.

Given that they are freshmen in college, my students told me, "We probably would not have had an opinion one way or the other about the decision Dunkin' Donuts' made without having taken the freshman seminar. However, now we see the importance of forming an educated opinion based on supporting evidence from reliable sources. And we believe this is especially important given other sensational media coverage of safe chemicals in food products."

It is understandable why Dunkin' Donuts conceded to the activists' complaints. We respect their decision to find a substitute due to the press they might have received otherwise. But, they should not have been compelled to make that decision in the first place. As You Sow took advantage of the misconceived notions about nano-products. Now, many people will probably view the company's decision as further evidence that nanoparticles are unsafe, which is disheartening.

Nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionize our world for the better in fields like energy, medicine, and aerospace. As consumers, my students and I agree we all need to educate ourselves about nanoscience rather than fussing whenever we find "nano-" in our products. Otherwise, unfounded ignorance could ruin the prospects of future remarkable innovations.


Professor Odom's students Benjamin Moy, Gage Kohner, and David Wallach contributed to the piece.