Food Additive Found in Processed Food Linked to Cancer

An observational study by French researchers found that emulsifiers, widely used in processed food products in the United States, may increase the risk of certain types of cancer.

In the United States, nearly 60% of all packaged food contains food additives, including artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. These food products, often referred to as ultra-processed or "junk" foods, have been linked to an increased risk of several health conditions, including cancer.

Now, a new study conducted in France found that another food additive, one commonly found in processed foods in the U.S., may increase the risk of breast and prostate cancer.

The study, recently published in PLOS Medicine, followed 92,000 participants from 2009 to 2021 who were part of the NutriNet-Santé cohort study, an extensive nutritional-based study in France.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that participants with a higher intake of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471) had a 15% higher risk of developing cancer. Specifically, those who consumed higher amounts of E471 had a 24% increased risk of breast cancer and a 46% higher risk of prostate cancer.

Moreover, women who consumed a high amount of carrageenan (E407) had a 32% higher risk of breast cancer.

In contrast to the breast and prostate cancer findings, the scientists found no associations between the emulsifiers included in the study and colorectal cancer.

Still, the research had limitations. For example, nearly 79% of the participants were female, and many had higher education levels and were more health-conscious than the general population in France.

However, the study included a significant number of participants, and the scientist accounted for factors that could skew the results, such as smoking status, family history, weight, and nutritional quality of the participants' diet.

In a press release, lead study authors Mathilde Touvier, Research Director at Inserm, and Bernard Srour, Junior Professor at INRAE, said, "While these findings need to be replicated in other studies worldwide, they bring new key knowledge to the debate on re-evaluating the regulations around the use of additives in the food industry, in order to better protect consumers."

Regarding the study's findings, Robert Rankin, executive director of the International Food Additives Council, told Healthnews that global scientific and regulatory authorities including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), European Commission, and Health Canada ‎have determined that emulsifiers permitted for use in food are safe.

"Given the observational nature of this study, causal links cannot be established and the results cannot be ‎extrapolated to the general population," Rankin says. "Cancer is a complex disease, to imply a single food ingredient increases one's risk of developing cancer is not supported by the available scientific information."

What are emulsifiers?

Food manufacturers use emulsifiers like mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471) to prevent ingredients from separating, reduce stickiness, and control crystallization. Foods that contain E471 include peanut butter, salad dressings, infant formula, and chocolate.

Carrageenan (E407) boosts food's texture, taste, and appearance and is primarily found in protein shakes, nut and soy milk, infant formula, and yogurt.

Both emulsifiers are considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and have no limitations on their use in food products in the U.S.


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