Emulsifiers increase cancer risk. A study

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Emulsifiers increase cancer risk

The consumption of emulsifiers, additives widely found in industrial foods, is linked to an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer. Evidence emerges from a study (Sellem et al., 2024) published in PLos Medicine and conducted by French researchers from the Nutrition Epidemiology Research Group (Cress-Eren). (1)

Emulsifiers, dodgy ‘cosmetic’ additives

The emulsifiers are added to many packaged foods in order to improve product consistency and extend shelf life. They are typical ‘cosmetic’ ingredients in ultra-processed foods, on a par with flavourings, colourings, flavour enhancers, etc. (2).

They are found in chocolates or snacks, in margarines and ready meals, but even in milk snacks for children, in ice creams, in corn flakes, in fresh pasta, in spreadable cheeses, as we have seen. (3)

In vitro and animal studies as well as human clinical studies show that consumption of emulsifiers causes alteration of the microbiota, thinning of the intestinal mucus, worsening of intestinal inflammation and increased recurrence, potentially favouring the onset of some forms of cancer. (4)

The new epidemiological study

The new study for the first time analyses possible links between the consumption of emulsifiers and the occurrence of cancer in a large study of the general population.

At the end of the treatment analysed data on diet and health of 92.000 adults (average age 45 years, 79% women) participating in the French NutriNet-Santé cohort study. The gigantic research project on the relationship between diet (diet, physical activity, nutritional status) and health since 2009 has already generated more than 270 international scientific publications.

The results

The cross-analysis of the data reported by the participants on their food consumption (specified by brand and ingredients) with those of health, after an average follow-up of 7 years, showed that

  • a higher intake of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471) is associated with an increased risk of cancer

– in general, +15%,

– breast, +24%,

– prostate, +46%.

  • Higher consumption of carrageenan (E407 and E407a) increases the risk of breast cancer by +32%, compared to the group with lower consumption.

It is good to underline the medical records of the 2.604 diagnosed cancer cases were reviewed by a medical committee. Other cancer risk factors including age, gender, body mass index (BMI), education level, family history, smoking, alcohol and physical activity levels, as well as the overall nutritional quality of the diet (consumption of sugar, salt, etc.) and menopausal status were also taken into account.

A new titanium dioxide case?

The authors of the research point out that the specific is the first observational study in this field, which is insufficient to establish a cause and effect link with certainty.

However, ‘if these results were to be replicated in other studies around the world, they would bring key new insights to the debate on re-evaluating regulations on the use of additives in the food industry to better protect consumers’, point out Mathilde Touvier, research director at Inserm, and Bernard Srour, junior professor at INRAE, the study’s main authors.‘point out Mathilde Touvier, research director at Inserm, and Bernard Srour, junior professor at INRAE, the study’s main authors.

The scientific evidence on the ‘adverse effects’ of emulsifiers are starting to become substantial. And in the inaction of legislators and the food industry, it is easy to foresee a repeat of the titanium dioxide (E171) case, ‘suddenly’ classified by EFSA as dangerous for health, after thousands of studies ignored for years. Furthermore, it is still in circulation in medicines and toothpastes, despite the evidence of absorption through the mucous membranes of the oral cavity. (5,6)

Marta Strinati

Footnotes

(1) Sellem L, Srour B, Javaux G, Chazelas E, Chassaing B, Viennois E, et al. (2024) Food additive emulsifiers and cancer risk: Results from the French prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort. PLoS Med 21(2): e1004338. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1004338

The study is conducted by a team of French researchers from Inserm, INRAE, Sorbonne University Paris Nord, Paris Cité University and Cnam.

(2) Marta Strinati. Identikit of ultraprocessed foods, excess of critical nutrients and ‘cosmetic’ additives. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 2.9.23

(3) See previous articles by Marta Signed on GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade): Fresh filled pasta, the taste of deceptive labels. 38 products in comparison. 10.2.22
Corn flakes and stuffed cereals, 24 in comparison 22.1.22.
Frùttolo and other milk snacks, 10 products compared. 25.9.21
Fresh spreadable and flaked cheeses, 18 products in comparison. 30.7.21
Packaged ice cream, too many suspicious additives. Our market survey of 20 products. 6.7.21

(4) Marta Strinati. The role of ultraprocessed foods in inflammatory bowel disease. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 15.11.22

(5) Dario Dongo. Titanium dioxide in food and supplements, stop from 7.2.22. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 20.1.22

(6) Marta Strinati. New study on the risks of titanium dioxide present in toothpastes and medicines. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 10.8.23

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Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".