Emulsifiers in Processed Foods Linked to Cancer | Health Blog

Date: 11/29/2016    Written by: Beth Levine

Common Food Additive Tied to Colon Cancer

Emulsifiers in Processed Foods Linked to Cancer | Health Blog

An ice cream sundae topped with hot fudge and a mound of whipped cream sounds like a nice treat every once in a while, but it may not be worth it. Besides the ridiculous number of calories and high amount of sugar and fat it contains, there are even bigger problems. New research suggests that the emulsifiers added to these kinds of processed foods can contribute to the development of cancer.

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The study, which was conducted at Georgia State University in Atlanta, found that two very common food additives may be associated with a higher risk of colon cancer.1 Rather than using human subjects, the experiment was performed on laboratory mice. The mice were assigned to one of three groups who received varying diets. One group was fed an emulsifier called sodium carboxymethycellulose; the second group was fed an emulsifier called polysorbate 80; and the third group served as a control and was fed neither emulsifier.

Both groups of rats consuming the additives had changes in their intestinal bacteria that lead to inflammation and colon cancer, whereas the rats who were not exposed to these additives had no such changes occur. We do have to take into consideration that the bodily systems of rats are vastly different from those of humans, and therefore the outcomes of research on rats might not apply to us. As Jon Barron has frequently pointed out, only about 4-20% of rodent studies statistically translate to humans. Although rodent trials are useful, they are far from definitive. However, in a case such as this, it is probably better to err on the side of caution and try to avoid these additives as much as possible.

Unfortunately, that might not be as easy as it sounds. Sodium carboxymethycellulose and polysorbate 80 appear in an astounding number of processed foods. Both of these emulsifiers are used to improve the texture of foods as well as to lengthen their shelf life and prevent the separation of oils or fats from the water-based ingredients in the food. Sodium carboxymethycellulose is added to many ice creams, processed cheeses, breakfast cereals, soups, and more. Polysorbate 80 is added to ketchups, mustards, ice creams, whipped toppings, creamy salad dressing, and gelatins, among others.

The United States Department of Agriculture does regulate the use of both of these additives, but to little effect. The USDA only allows a single emulsifier to comprise one to two percent of a product, but food manufacturers easily get around this because multiple emulsifiers can be used in any product. So if four different emulsifiers are added to achieve the manufacturer’s goals, the food item might consist of up to eight percent of these additives.

This research is not the first time that an association has been identified between emulsifiers and health risks, either. The researchers who led the current study had shown in a 2015 study that emulsifiers contribute to the development of inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome.2

As disturbing as these findings are, they are not surprising if you consider the increase in both the use of emulsifiers in processed foods and the jump in cases of colon cancer over the past several decades. Food manufacturers only began adding emulsifiers to their goods in the 1930s. And simultaneously, colon cancer cases have been on the rise since the 1950s according to the American Cancer Society, to the point where it is now the third most common form of cancer in both men and women and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

To protect yourself, it’s essential to read labels carefully and try to avoid additives such as sodium carboxymethycellulose and polysorbate 80 as much as possible. Obviously, any time you can prepare your food using fresh ingredients rather than something out of a box, can, or plastic packaging, you will be eating more naturally and healthfully. But if you do occasionally need the convenience of some type of processed food, at least try to find the ones with the fewest additives and then include some fresh foods as well in order to limit your exposure at any given meal.

  • 1. Viennois, Emilie; et al. "Dietary emulsifier-induced low-grade inflammation promotes colon carcinogenesis." Cancer Research. 7 November 2016. Accessed 12 November 2016. http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/early/2016/11/05/0008-5472.CAN-16-1359.
  • 2. Chassaing, Benoit; et al. "Dietary emulsifiers impact the mouse gut microbiota promoting colitis and metabolic syndrome." Nature. 25 February 2015. Accessed 12 November 2016. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v519/n7541/full/nature14232.html.

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