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Grim New Study Links a ‘Common’ Food Additive to Cancer

Who likes ice cream anyway? Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Here’s a fun start to the week: New research suggests a food additive that’s a pretty unavoidable part of the American diet might be linked to cancer. A study in the journal Cancer Research argues that emulsifiers — chemicals like lecithin, xanthan gum, and carrageenan used to improve food’s texture and shelf life — also seem to be really good at triggering tumors in the bowels of mice.

The study’s authors had done previous work with emulsifiers and found that they can harm good bacteria living in rodents’ guts: Give mice a steady stream of emulsifiers, and they’ll end up with a higher risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease that are, in turn, tied to inflammatory bowel disease, a nasty condition that, according to the paper, “gave rise to the term ‘colitis-associated cancer.’” These days, colorectal cancer claims nearly three-quarters of a million lives per year, the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths, and the research team notes the incidence has increased “markedly” over the past 50 years. Since human genetics largely haven’t changed during that period, this suggests “a pivotal role for an environmental factor.” Emulsifiers in the diet, they think, might be creating “a niche for tumor development.”

The big problem is their ubiquity. They’re necessary to blend oil and water, give bread its crumb, and make ice cream smooth, and — go figure — found in almost all processed foods. (Typically several at once, too.) Federal regulations won’t let foods contain more than 1 to 2 percent of any one emulsifier, but they don’t cap the total number of emulsifiers that can be used. The study’s lead author Emilie Viennois’s only tip is to try mixing store-bought processed products with “some” homemade things so people don’t blast the gut with “huge exposure to emulsifiers in one meal.”

Grim New Study Links a ‘Common’ Food Additive to Cancer