A new study out of Georgia State University’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences suggests a link between emulsifiers, chemicals used to increase food’s shelf life and improve its texture, and colorectal cancer.
The study led by researcher Emilie Viennois and published in the journal Cancer Research showed that regular consumption of dietary emulsifiers in mice exacerbated tumor development.
The team fed mice for three months with two very commonly used emulsifiers, polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose, at doses seeking to model the broad consumption of the numerous emulsifiers that are incorporated into the majority of processed foods.
Researchers observed that consuming emulsifiers drastically changed the species composition of the gut microbiota in a manner that made it more pro–inflammatory, creating a niche favoring cancer induction.
In a previous study, Viennois was able to link emulsifiers to changing good bacteria living in the guts of mice. The change in the bacteria promoted metabolic syndrome, which is a risk factor for chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
In addition to calling into question the wisdom of ingesting either emulsifier, the researchers said their findings should prompt the FDA to reconsider the criteria they use in declaring food additives safe.
Viennois found that the microbial changes and high levels of inflammation caused a “cancer friendly environment,” Time reports.
Emulsifiers are very common, found in almost all processed foods — including ice cream, chocolate bars, store-bought bread, soda, and margarine, to name a few.
Although federal regulations don’t allow foods to contain more than 1 to 2 percent of any one emulsifier, there isn’t a cap on the total number of emulsifiers that can be used.
One caveat – some of the mice were deliberately administered carcinogenic chemicals and fed emulsifiers in their drinking water to see if the emulsifiers amplified the carcinogens’ effects. These mice were compared against mice who only received carcinogenic chemicals, and not emulsifier-containing water.
Polysorbate 80 is used as an emulsifier or defoamer in foods, vitamins, medicines, and vaccines. It is used as a defoamer for the fermenting process of some wines, and also to bind some ice-creams and other ‘puddings’, to keep their creamy texture without separating. It is also used to bulk foods up and keep sauces smooth.
Carboxymethylcellulose is found in ice cream, dressings, cheese, icing, toppings, gelatinous desserts, infant/baby formula, candy, cottage cheese, cream cheese spread.
Non-food items include toothpaste, laxatives, hand cream, antacids, diet pills, and detergents.