This common food additive promotes colon cancer in mice

A popular food additive used in everything from dill pickles to ice cream is now linked to colon cancer, thanks to the way it impacts the gut.

Emulsifiers are added to most processed foods to improve food texture and extend shelf life. But it also throws off healthy levels of intestinal bacteria, triggering chronic, low-level inflammation that promotes colorectal cancer, according to a new study.

To be clear, scientists identified the potential cancer-promoting effects in an animal study. But the way I see it, it’s best to steer clear of these ingredients since various other studies suggest they impact the gut in unhealthy ways.

The finding comes on the heels of another gut breakthrough where researchers discovered fungus may trigger Crohn’s disease. Clearly, the microbiome greatly influences our disease risk. That’s why I make gut health the centerpiece of my practice and my personal health regimen.

Let’s take a closer look at this important new study, including ways to avoid this harmful class of processed food additives.


The Food Additive and Colon Cancer Connection

Hippocrates is famous for declaring that food is medicine. But his quote came long before the creation of lab-derived ingredients and processed foods. Here, we have just another example of how ingredients we often overlook can spell disaster for our health. In the recent food additive and colon cancer study, researchers at Georgia State University’s Institute for Biomedical Sciences found that mice that regularly consumed dietary emulsifiers experienced exacerbated tumor development. The results appeared in the journal Cancer Research. (1)

For this study, researchers focused on two of the most commonly used emulsifiers called polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose. They fed mice doses comparable to the cumulative amounts people would eat daily in processed foods. While the following findings need to be replicated in humans, I’m not taking any chances and will continue to avoid these “detergent-like” ingredients.

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, researchers pointed out. Alterations in bacterial species resulted in bacteria expressing more flagellin and lipopolysaccharide, which activate pro-inflammatory gene expression by the immune system.

Inflammation is the root of most diseases

If we’re eating processed foods containing emulsifiers on a daily basis, it appears we’re inducing chronic, low-level inflammation.  Since inflammation is at the root of most diseases, this is a major finding. Colorectal cancer is now the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths across the globe. More and more research is honing in our how the balance of microorganisms in our gut can help prevent (or trigger) cancer and other diseases.

Low-grade inflammation, a condition more prevalent than inflammatory bowel diseases that trigger things like Crohn’s disease symptoms, was associated with altered gut microbiota composition and metabolic disease. This is what is observed in many cases of colorectal cancer. These recent findings suggest dietary emulsifiers might be partially responsible for this association. (2)

“The incidence of colorectal cancer has been markedly increasing since the mid-20th century. A key feature of this disease is the presence of an altered intestinal microbiota that creates a favorable niche for tumorigenesis.” — Emilie Viennois, PhD, study co-author

Researchers point out that the sharp increase in digestive disease points to an environmental factor like food. The scientists also explain that the detergent-like molecules in emulsifiers disrupted health gut flora and also threw off healthy intestinal epithelial cell functioning in the gut in a way that promotes colon tumors.

This is a major breakthrough that suggests even low-grade gut inflammation can promote colon cancer.


A Closer Look at the Food Additive and Colon Cancer Culprits

The class of emulsifiers in question are often found in things like baked goods, frozen desserts, non-dairy creamers, ice cream and even dill pickles. As Center for Science in the Public Interest explains, they keep baked goods from going stale, keep dill oil dissolved in bottled dill pickles, help coffee whiteners dissolve in coffee, and prevent oil from separating out of artificial whipped cream. (3)

This isn’t the first time polysorbate 80 and car­boxymethylcellulose are making headlines (and not in a good way). In 2015, researchers also linked the ingredients to unhealthy changes in the gut, including altered bacteria and inflammation. That study mouse study also saw a link between those ingredients and obesity and metabolic syndrome, too. It’s possible that polysorbates and other emulsifiers act like detergents to disrupt the mucous layer that lines the gut. (4)


Final Thoughts on the Food Additive and Colon Cancer Study

  • Cut way back on processed foods to avoid harmful food additives.
  • Avoid other gut-damaging additives like carrageenan.
  • Take steps to heal leaky gut to help undo some of the damage already done, particularly gut permeability.
  • Avoid foods that contain polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose. This often includes nonorganic dill pickles, ice cream, cooking sprays and many other processed foods.
  • Beware of other emulsifiers. It’s not clear if soy lecithin also impacts the gut in a similar way.


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Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a doctor of natural medicine, doctor of chiropractic and clinical nutritionist with a passion to help people get well using food as medicine and operates one of the world's largest natural health websites: www.DrAxe.com. He is the author of the groundbreaking health book Eat Dirt, which uncovers the hidden causes and cures of leaky gut syndrome. Dr. Axe is an expert in digestive health, functional medicine, natural remedies and dietary strategies for healing. He has been featured on many television shows, including the Dr. Oz Show, CBS and NBC, and has his own Eat Dirt program running on select PBS TV stations. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world, in Nashville, TN, and has been a physician for many professional athletes. DrAxe.com is one of the most visited websites worldwide for healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, essential oils, and natural supplements.