This Common Food Additive is Linked to Colon Cancer

We know that water and oil don’t mix well, which is a major reason why food manufacturers add emulsifiers to many of their products. Favorites such as ice cream, mayonnaise, salad dressings, cheese, and even infant formula have emulsifiers added to help make them smoother and creamier. Yet at least two of these emulsifiers have been shown to have a role in the development of colorectal cancer in mice.

Read about 7 scary food additives to avoid

You may be familiar with the names of these emulsifiers—polysorbate-80 and carboxymethylcellulose—and here are a few things you should know about them. The body cannot absorb or digest carboxymethylcellulose, which is produced by using an acetic acid derivative to react with cellulose, such as wood pulp or cotton lint. Polysorbate-80 is often derived from petroleum and is made by mixing sorbitol (a sweetener) with oleic acid. This emulisifier is often contaminated with a cancer-causing substance called 1,4 dioxane.

Both emulsifiers have undergone some scrutiny concerning their role in low-grade inflammation and metabolic syndrome/obesity in mice and, more recently, the part they play in the development of colon cancer. 

Read about complex carbs and colon cancer

For several years, a group of researchers at Georgia State University have been exploring the connection between polysorbate-80 and carboxymethylcellulose and their effect on intestinal microorganisms. A link between emulsifiers and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) had already been reported, and because IBD promotes the formation of tumors in the colon, the scientists decided to examine how these emulsifiers might be involved with cancer.

Using mouse models, the researchers fed the animals doses of the additives that mimicked those commonly found in processed foods. The mice experienced a severe change in the microorganisms in their gut, which in turn fostered inflammation and, as a result, could promote the development of colon cancer.  

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 95,270 new cases of colon cancer and 39,220 new cases of rectal cancer in the United States in 2016. Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in women and men in the United States (excluding skin cancers). Are these emulsifiers contributing to the risk of this disease? Continuing research will hopefully reveal more about this issue, but in the meantime, it’s best for us to steer clear of foods that contain polysorbate-80 and carboxymethylcellulose.  

American Cancer Society. What is colon/rectum cancer?
Chassaing B et al. Dietary emulsifiers impact the mouse gut microbiota promoting colitis and metabolic syndrome. Nature 2015 Mar 5; 519(7541): 92-96
Viennois E et al. Dietary emulsifier-induced low-grade inflammation promotes colon carcinogenesis. Cancer Research 2016 Nov 7

By Deborah Mitchell| December 20, 2016
Categories:  Live

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at

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