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Emulsifiers in Processed Food Linked to Cancer?

An earlier post discussed how emulsifiers (which are added to most processed foods to aid texture and extend shelf life) can alter the the community of microbes that live in our gut (gut microbiota) in such a way as to cause intestinal inflammation. Now the same researchers found that regular consumption of emulsifiers alter intestinal bacteria in a manner that promotes low-grade intestinal inflammation and possibly colorectal cancer.

The emulsifiers used in the study were the commonly used carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80, but some others are soy lecithin, carrageenan, and polyglycerol ester. Processed foods often contain several emulsifiers, and while food regulations limit the amount of each emulsifier present in a particular food product to 1% to 2%, they don’t restrict the number of emulsifiers allowed. The study was done in mice, but the researchers tried to model the level of exposure of humans who eat a lot of processed food. From Science Daily:

Common food additive promotes colon cancer in mice

Emulsifiers, which are added to most processed foods to aid texture and extend shelf life, can alter intestinal bacteria in a manner that promotes intestinal inflammation and colorectal cancer, according to a new study. The findings, published in the journal Cancer Research, show regular consumption of dietary emulsifiers in mice exacerbated tumor development....There is increasing awareness that the intestinal microbiota, the vast, diverse population of microorganisms that inhabits the human intestines, play a role in driving colorectal cancer.

The microbiota is also a key factor in driving Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, the two most common forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD is known to promote colon tumorigenesis and gave rise to the term "colitis-associated cancer." Low-grade inflammation, a condition more prevalent than IBD, was shown to be associated with altered gut microbiota composition and metabolic disease and is observed in many cases of colorectal cancer. These recent findings suggest dietary emulsifiers might be partially responsible for this association.

Previous reports by the Georgia State research team suggested that low-grade inflammation in the intestine is promoted by consumption of dietary emulsifiers, which are detergent-like molecules incorporated into most processed foods that alter the composition of gut microbiota. The addition of emulsifiers to food seems to fit the time frame and had been shown to promote bacterial translocation across epithelial cells. Viennois and Chassaing hypothesized that emulsifiers might affect the gut microbiota in a way that promotes colorectal cancer. They designed experiments in mice to test this possibility.

In this study, the team fed mice 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 and development. Alterations in bacterial species resulted in bacteria expressing more flagellin and lipopolysaccharide, which activate pro-inflammatory gene expression by the immune system.

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