Tumors, beware of emulsifiers – la Repubblica

Tumors, beware of emulsifiers – la Repubblica


They are among the most used ingredients in the food industry, the secret of spreadable creams so enveloping on the palate, of consistent and tasty puddings, of particularly delicate and creamy sauces, ice creams and cakes. We are talking about emulsifiers, a family of additives essential for the production of so-called ultra-processed foods, which have been repeatedly criticized for their consequences on human health. First of all the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. To which is now added the risk of developing cancer, as demonstrated by the data published from the largest study ever conducted on the relationship between the intake of emulsifiers and oncological risk.

The French study

“The data comes from the French study Feed Santè which follows eating habits in a very detailed manner, on some occasions collecting information on what is eaten in the 24 hours by scanning food barcodes. This way you are sure of all additives, taking the information directly from the food manufacturer – explains a Health Valeria Pala, epidemiologist at the Cancer Institute of Milan – However, these results outline a relationship that has never emerged before and which will need to be further investigated, as the French authors themselves underline in the study”. In the coming years, the Cancer Institute will also be involved in similar research which will be conducted by collecting the consumption of the people involved in a detailed and precise manner.

But let’s get to the French data, published on Plos One, which concern 92 thousand people, the vast majority of whom are women, followed for approximately 7 years. In this period, 2,604 cases of cancer were recorded, including 750 breast, 322 prostate and 207 colorectal cancers. By crossing these data with those of food containing emulsifiers, it was found that a high consumption of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471) is linked to a 15% increase in the risk of all types of cancer, a 24% increase in the risk of cancer to the breast and 46% of that to the prostate. A high consumption of carrageenans (E407) is instead associated with a 28% increase in the risk of developing breast cancer.

The risk of developing breast cancer increases more before menopause: by 45% for a high consumption of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471), by 55% for pectins (E440), by 48% for sodium carbonate ( E500). However, no relationship has been found between emulsifiers and colorectal cancer.

What the data tells us

“This is an observational study and therefore does not allow us to create a cause-effect relationship, but it certainly brings to light a consideration that has been imagined for some time. There is a very rich scientific literature that has highlighted how emulsifiers are able to disrupt the relationship between intestinal cells. So much so that it is thought to be one of the causes of the increase in the incidence of allergic diseases. Before now, however, no evidence of a role in oncological diseases had been published – explains a Health Antonello Paparellafull professor of Microbiology at the Department of Biosciences and Agri-Food and Environmental Technologies at the University of Teramo.

The risk of ultra-processed foods

The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) periodically evaluates the safety of all additives and so far has not detected any risk related to the emulsifiers covered by the French study, but it is clear that, if these data are also confirmed by other studies, it will will have to proceed with a new evaluation. Even if these are largely substances present in nature – such as the pectins contained, for example, in fruit peel, or carrageenans, algae derivatives – “the purity and concentration at which these substances are used by the food industry they are very different from those present in nature. Certainly, then, eating ultra-processed foods containing these ingredients is not like eating an apple, also because it is the combination of all the nutrients and their interaction that determines the healthiness of a food”, concludes Paparella.

Cancer, the authors of the study point out, is a multifactorial disease and it is difficult to point the finger at just one risk factor. Nonetheless, considering that eating ultra-processed foods is not essential, French researchers also highlight the possibility of lowering the risk of disease with simple choices. In France, 30% of the population eats this type of food; in Italy the percentage is lower, 17% of adults. However, this percentage rises, reaching 26%, in children.



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