Emulsifiers — the common food additives found in many of your favorite foods — have been linked to colon cancer in mice, according to the latest research.
Emulsifiers are ingredients that help all of the other ingredients mesh together into a final product. In a recipe, they get along well with water-loving and oil-loving ingredients, so they bind all of those ingredients together and help them play nicely in your food.
Eggs are emulsifiers. So is beeswax, although it's not very tasty in food. Nowadays, the most common emulsifiers used in foods are monoglyceride and diglyceride derivatives of fatty acids. These emulsifiers not only improve the texture of the final product, but they also help to extend its shelf life. They are commonly used in foods like ice cream, mayonnaise, margarine, creamy sauces, and other bakery products and processed foods (think bread and chocolate.)
Researchers from Georgia State University's Institute for Biomedical Sciences wanted to see how these emulsifiers affected the human body. After feeding mice a diet that included "regular consumption" of the dietary emulsifiers, polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose, the research team found that these emulsifiers altered the intestinal bacteria of the mice in such as way as to cause inflammation and colorectal cancer. Overall, the mice that were fed the emulsifiers developed more and bigger cancerous tumors than those whose diet did not include those additives.
The study was published in the journal Cancer Research.
According to the researchers, the emulsifiers may act as "detergents" in the gut by changing the composition of bacteria in the digestive system. This altered microbial composition may be more prone to inflammation and may favor the introduction and development of cancer.
It's key to remember here that this experiment was conducted on mice, so researchers can't conclusively determine how dietary emulsifiers might affect humans. (But it does make me want to stick with homemade.)