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Food Emulsifiers Linked to Increased Breast and Prostate Cancer Risk

Peanut butter.
Credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash
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The weight of evidence against ultra-processed foods just got a little heavier.

As if the products’ added salt, sugar and fat levels weren’t damaging enough to our health, a new study has linked the foods’ emulsifiers to higher incidences of certain cancers.  

After analyzing the health data of 92,000 adults – and accounting for other risk factors like age and weight – a team from several French research institutes found that those who ate more processed foods containing emulsifiers were more likely to develop breast and prostate cancers.

While this link was observational – not biochemically proven –  the researchers say their findings add to the debate around ultra-processed food regulations.

Their paper was published in PLoS Medicine.

Immersed in emulsifiers

Emulsifiers are added to food to help blend any oil and water, which would otherwise separate. The chemicals are often found in ultra-processed foods such as mayonnaise, ice cream, peanut butter, margarine, processed meats and bread.

As such foods have become staples in western diets in recent decades, researchers have wondered what effect emulsifiers could be having on population health.

To test whether the chemicals could be influencing cancer rates, the researchers from the French Nutritional Epidemiology Research team analyzed data from an ongoing national survey, the French NutriNet-Santé cohort.

The team looked at the entries of 92,000 adults, who were 45 years old on average, and 79% women. that participated in the cohort between 2009 and 2021.

All participants had given at least three days of dietary records on what food and drink they had consumed.

The researchers began by matching these diaries against food databases and testing the mentioned items (2,677 food-additive pairs were analyzed) to identify which emulsifiers the participants would have consumed and in what volume.

Between 2009 and 2021, 2,604 cases of cancer were diagnosed within the cohort.

The researchers then compared these cancer rates to the diets of the cohorts using a statistical model that accounted for other cancer risk factors, such as age, weight, family history, etc.

After an average follow-up of seven years, the researchers found that higher intakes of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471) were associated with increased risks of cancer overall (a 15% higher risk among those consuming the most compared with those consuming the least), breast cancer (a 24% higher risk) and prostate cancer (a 46% higher risk).

Women with higher carrageenan intakes (E407 and E407a) had a 32% higher risk of developing breast cancer, compared with the group with lower intakes.

Despite the study’s limitations – no causational proof, under-representation of men, etc. – the authors say their findings are robust and add to the growing body of evidence that ultra-processed foods are a cancer risk.

Another study, published in the Lancet last year, noted that, among a UK cohort, ultra-processed consumption was linked to an increased burden and mortality for ovarian cancer.

In response to these results, regulators should consider reassessing what they allow ultra-processed foods to contain, said the French research team.

“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,” Mathilde Touvier, a research director at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, and Bernard Srour, a junior professor at the National Institute of Agronomic Research – both lead authors of the study – said in a statement.

Reference: Sellem L, Srour B, Javaux G, et al. Food additive emulsifiers and cancer risk: Results from the French prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort. Plos Med. 2024 doi: 1004338.

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Inserm. Material has been edited for length and content.