Emulsifiers could impact your good gut bacteria.

By Gillie Houston
Updated May 24, 2017
Healthy Chicken and Kale Salad
Credit: © Todd Porter & Diane Cu

Grocery shoppers, beware: A common ingredient in many processed foods has been linked to the development of cancer in animals. According to researchers at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University, emulsifiers—chemicals commonly used to prolong shelf life in packaged products—could increase the risk of developing colon cancer. A new study published in the journal Cancer Research reports that emulsifiers, which are added to a mixture of water-based and oily ingredients to prevent separation over time, have the potential to negatively impact the good bacteria in the gut. Though food regulations limit the amount a particular emulsifier can be used in a product to one to two percent, there is no limit on the number of kinds of emulsifiers that can be used in a given food. The team of researchers at Georgia State, lead by Emilie Viennois, set out to determine how the presence of these chemicals would affect the gut and body as a whole. In a previous study, Viennois found that the impact of emulsifiers on good gut bacteria encouraged the development of metabolic syndrome, which can in turn increase the risk of a number of chronic diseases including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and inflammation. Recently, the researchers narrowed the scope of their study to focus on whether or not the chances of developing colon cancer would be increased by the consumption of these chemicals. A test group of mice were fed two commonly used emulsifiers in their water for three months, during which changes in their digestive system were evaluated on a regular basis. Over time, it was clear that consumption of the chemicals was promoting tumor growth by creating a more cancer-friendly gut environment. While the potential effect of the chemical additives have yet to be monitored in humans, Viennois notes that the intake of emulsifiers "can create a niche for tumor development." The researchers plan to pursue further data on the subject with their animal test group and to collaborate with other researchers to begin human studies. In the meantime, Viennois says its wise for "people to try to cook instead of using food industry products."