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Two Common Food Additives Promote Colorectal Cancer

food additives promote colorectal cancer

Walk into a grocery store and start reading ingredient labels on some of the more popular processed foods, including ice cream. Chances are you’ll see the names of two common food additives that have been shown to promote colorectal cancer development.


Food additives can have an impact on the microorganism environment in the intestinal tract (i.e., intestinal microbiota). These foreign substances can alter the microbiota in the intestines, resulting in a favorable environment for tumors to grow.

Which food additives may lead to colorectal cancer?

Diet has a direct impact on gut microflora, so a team at Georgia State University wondered whether there may be a connection between food additives and its effect on intestinal microorganisms and colorectal cancer. Because previous studies have suggested that food additives known as emulsifiers may help cause inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a condition that promotes tumor formation in the colon, scientists looked at the role of two emulsifiers in the development of colorectal cancer.

The study’s authors found that low concentrations of two food additives, carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80, induced low-grade inflammation and metabolic syndrome/obesity in mice. Although the intestines are normally protected from bacteria that can damage their cellular lining, these emulsifiers appear to break through safety barriers and promote IBD symptoms.

What are emulsifiers?

Emulsifiers are molecules that make certain foods such as ice cream and mayonnaise possible because water and oil don’t mix naturally. In nature, milk is a natural emulsion—it consists of proteins and phospholipids and is essentially fat drops suspended in a watery solution.

For some food production, however, producers use synthetic emulsifiers to help water and oil mix. Emulsifiers are molecules that have an oil-loving end and a water-loving end, and together they make certain foods such as ice cream and mayonnaise possible.

Carboxymethylcellulose is made by reacting cellulose (e.g., cotton lint, wood pulp) with an acetic acid derivative. The body doesn’t digest or absorb this emulsifier, which is found in ice cream, cheese, infant and baby formula, candy cream cheese,, icing, and toppings.

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Polysorbate-80 is made by adding oleic acid to sorbitol, a sweetener. It is often derived from petroleum.
This emulsifier is commonly used in nondairy creamers, whipped cream, mayonnaise, ice cream, sherbet, and dressings. Polysorbate 80 is commonly contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, which causes cancer in animals.

How emulsifiers contribute to colorectal cancer

In the new study, mice were fed doses of the two emulsifiers that mimic those commonly added to processed foods for humans. Carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate 80 both severely modified the microbiota in the gut, promoting inflammation and making the intestines a supportive environment for cancer development.

The scientists tested this idea further by transplanting microbiota from mice who had been given the two emulsifiers to germ-free mice. This resulted in the germ-free mice also showing changes in their microorganisms balance in the intestinal tract.

Overall, the authors of the study concluded that their findings support the idea that the agitation from the emulsifiers resulted in low-grade inflammation in the gut, which can promote development of colorectal cancer. They are now conducting further investigations into this phenomenon.

This study highlights the potential health dangers associated with food additives.

Be Food Smart. Carboxymethylcellulose
Be Food Smart. Polysorbate 80
Georgia State University news

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