These Common Food Additives Promote Cancer: Scientific Research

We raised the red flags on the potential dangers of food additives ‘Polysorbate-80’ and ‘Carboxymethylcellulose’  (sometimes labeled as ‘cellulose gum’) years ago when previous scientific studies demonstrated the potential for deleterious outcomes from consuming these chemicals. Now this year we have new scientific findings demonstrating that these commonly used food additive emulsifiers act as cancer promoters.  While the potential for adverse health outcomes holds for all consumers, those at an increased risk are consumers who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and other conditions that trigger low-grade intestinal inflammation.  How much more evidence are we going to need to remove these chemicals of concern from the U.S. food supply?


Dietary Emulsifier–Induced Low-Grade Inflammation Promotes Colon Carcinogenesis


The increased risks conferred by inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) to the development of colorectal cancer gave rise to the term “colitis-associated cancer” and the concept that inflammation promotes colon tumorigenesis. A condition more common than IBD is low-grade inflammation, which correlates with altered gut microbiota composition and metabolic syndrome, both present in many cases of colorectal cancer. Recent findings suggest that low-grade inflammation in the intestine is promoted by consumption of dietary emulsifiers, a ubiquitous component of processed foods, which alter the composition of gut microbiota.

Here, we demonstrate in a preclinical model of colitis-induced colorectal cancer that regular consumption of dietary emulsifiers, carboxymethylcellulose or polysorbate-80, exacerbated tumor development. Enhanced tumor development was associated with an altered microbiota metagenome characterized by elevated levels of lipopolysaccharide and flagellin. We found that emulsifier-induced alterations in the microbiome were necessary and sufficient to drive alterations in major proliferation and apoptosis signaling pathways thought to govern tumor development. Overall, our findings support the concept that perturbations in host–microbiota interactions that cause low-grade gut inflammation can promote colon carcinogenesis.


Journal Reference:  Emilie Viennois, Didier Merlin, Andrew T. Gewirtz and Benoit Chassaing, Cancer Research Journal; 77(1); 27–40.

Quick overview of study: 

Common food additive promotes colon cancer in mice

Emulsifiers, which are added to most processed foods to aid texture and extend shelf life, can alter intestinal bacteria in a manner that promotes intestinal inflammation and colorectal cancer, according to a new study.

The findings, published in the journal Cancer Research, show regular consumption of dietary emulsifiers in mice exacerbated tumor development.



From our book:  The Food Hacker’s Handbook: A Guide to Breaking the Processed Foods and Additives Addiction


“…recent research findings have suggested that food additives Polysorbate 80 and Carboxymethylcellulose (otherwise known as “cellulose gum”), commonly used as emulsifiers in processed food to promote texture and extend shelf life, can actually alter the gut microbiota composition and localization to induce intestinal inflammation that promotes the development of inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome.  Researchers working on the study reported they were alarmed at the strength with which these additives appear to promote weight gain, intestinal inflammation, metabolic syndrome, colitis and Crohn’s disease—serious illnesses that have spiked in the U.S. in recent years and have coincided with the food industry’s increased use of emulsifiers.

-P. Carlisle, Ph.D., founder / CRS Institute, and author, The Food Hacker’s Handbook


Source: The Food Hacker’s Handbook: A Guide to Breaking the Processed Foods and Additives Addiction


Polysorbate 80  (Polyoxyethylene (20) Sorbitan Monooleate); Darbepoetin Alfa)

Where Found: A surfactant and emulsifier derived from polyethoxylated sorbitan and oleic acid and commonly found in a variety of processed foods including ice cream, frozen custard, ice milk, fruit sherbet, frozen desserts, pickles and pickle products, canned spiced green beans, yeast, poultry (during the preparation process), special dietary foods, whipped toppings, gelatin desserts and dessert mixes, and chewing gum.  Also used as a de-foaming agent in regular and low-fat cottage cheese, and as a surfactant and wetting agent for the natural and artificial food dyes used in barbecue sauce.


Red Flags: Scientific animal studies indicate that this industrialized food additive may act as an endocrine disruptor; it appears to affect reproductive functioning and has been linked to infertility in rodents. Polysorbate 80 has also been shown in studies to be an immunosuppressant and may cause severe allergic reactions including anaphylactic shock.  Suspected carcinogen; more research is needed. Reported symptoms of adverse reactions to Polysorbate 80 have included difficulty breathing, adverse skin reactions, swelling, digestive/gastrointestinal problems, and circulatory complications. According to the authors of a recent animal study the results indicate that this additive appears to promote weight gain, intestinal inflammation, metabolic syndrome, colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Sodium Carboxymethylcellulose  (Cellulose Gum)

Where Found: This derivative of acetic acid is commonly used as a thickener and emulsifier in processed foods. It may be present in foods such as ice cream, whipping creams, milk and milk products, creamers, flavored and fermented drinks, rice and tapioca pudding, pie filling, egg-based and fat-based desserts, yogurt, cheeses, dried, canned and bottled vegetables, soybean based foods, processed meats (esp. pork), fish and poultry, processed fruit, soups, broths, yeast based products, confectionery, breakfast cereals, oat-based breakfast bars, pasta, noodles, vinegars, mustard, seasonings, sauces, dressings, toppings, dietary foods, energy and sports drinks, and alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine.


Red Flags: Some people may experience digestive/gastrointestinal problems in reaction to this additive.  While rare, sensitive individuals may experience allergic reactions to this additive including swelling of face, throat, tongue, dizziness, adverse skin reactions such as rash, and difficulty breathing. Individuals who have been instructed to reduce sodium in their diets such as those with high blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes may be advised by health care professionals to reduce or avoid processed foods containing this additive.


Solutions:  Avoid highly processed foods and always read the ingredients labels on moderate- and low-processed food items.  Just say “no” to both ‘Polysorbate-80’ and ‘Carboxymethylcellulose’  (‘cellulose gum’) and look for a competitor’s alternative options that do not use these pernicious additives.  Consumers should also make their voices heard by contacting food manufacturers directly via telephone, email or conventional letters (contact information will be available on their websites) and express their position on manufacturers that continue to use these chemicals of concern in food items.