Study Reveals that Processed Food Emulsifiers May Contribute to Colon Cancer

Rising rates of colorectal cancer roughly correspond with increased use of additives

Study Reveals that Processed Food Emulsifiers May Contribute to Colon Cancer
Image: NCCC
November 7, 2016

It has become increasingly difficult to find a processed food that does not contain emulsifiers, additives used to extend shelf life and improve the products' texture. However, a new study has discovered that these additives may promote inflammation of the intestines and colorectal cancer, the fourth-leading cause of deaths from cancer.

Georgia State University scientists claim to have discovered that when mice consume emulsifiers on a regular basis, their intestinal bacteria are changed in such a way to contribute to the development of tumors.

Colorectal cancer was the cause of approximately 700,000 deaths annually in the U.S. as of 2012, which is the last year for which complete figures are available. Scientists point out the that rising death rates correspond roughly to increased consumption of processed foods.

"The incidence of colorectal cancer has been markedly increasing since the mid-20th century," said Dr. Emilie Viennois, assistant professor in the Georgia State Institute for Biomedical Sciences. "A key feature of this disease is the presence of an altered intestinal microbiota that creates a favorable niche for tumorigenesis."

Benoit Chassaing works at the Institute for Biomedical Sciences as an assistant professor. "The dramatic increase in these diseases has occurred amidst constant human genetics, suggesting a pivotal role for an environmental factor," Chassaing stated.

Previous studies conducted by the researchers at Georgia State suggested that low levels of intestinal inflammation are helped by the consumption of dietary emulsifiers, molecules similar to detergent that are placed into most processed foods and change the composition of gut microbiota.

Adding emulsifiers appears to correctly fit the timeframe of colorectal cancer. Viennois and Chassaing believe that these additives could affect the microbiota in the gut in a way that promotes the cancer and designed the mice experiments to test this hypothesis.

In the most recent study, the mice were fed with two common emulsifiers—polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose—at such doses trying to model the wide consumption of the large number of emulsifiers included in most processed foods.

The researchers discovered dramatic changes in the gut microbiota such that it became more pro-inflammatory, which would create a niche favorable to cancer induction and development.