Food additives increase the risk of cancer

(Montreal) The consumption of certain food additives used to improve the texture of products and extend their shelf life is associated with an increased risk of cancer, warns a study published by leading French researchers.

Grouped together within the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team, researchers from Inserm, INRAE, Sorbonne Paris Nord University, Paris Cité University and Cnam “undertook to study the possible links between dietary intake of emulsifying additives and the occurrence of cancers,” specifies a press release published by the National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

“They used some really interesting data to answer a question that is on everyone's lips at the moment, that is to say the impact of ultra-processed foods on health,” commented researcher Benoît Lamarche, who is a professor at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences and director of the NUTRISS Center at Laval University.

Emulsifiers are often added to foods such as pastries, cakes, desserts, ice cream, chocolate bars, breads, margarines and prepared foods to improve their appearance, taste, texture and texture. the duration of the conversation.

French researchers analyzed the eating habits and health data of some 92,000 adults participating in the French NutriNet-Santé cohort study, specifically assessing their consumption of this type of food additives.

After an average follow-up of seven years, the researchers found that the highest consumers of monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids increased their general risk of cancer by 15% compared to the lowest consumers, their risk of breast cancer by 24%. and their risk of prostate cancer by 46%.

On the other hand, women with higher intakes of carrageenan had a 32% greater risk of developing breast cancer, compared to the group with lower intakes.

Ultraprocessed foods can represent up to half of what the population eats every day, Professor Lamarche recalled.

“It’s a lot, it’s the majority of our calories,” he said. So we wonder what adverse effects this could have on health. »

Scientists are still trying to determine whether the health risks of ultraprocessed foods come from the processing process itself (and therefore, the addition of additives); if they arise rather from the nutritional content of these foods which are often rich in saturated fat, sugar and salt; or if it is a combination of the two, clarified Professor Lamarche.

The originality of the French study, he continues, comes precisely from the fact that its authors isolated “for the first time (…) the processing component” of these foods and examined a possible link with cancer.

“This suggests that overconsumption of certain agents that are used in processed foods is not desirable, and that this must be considered in our future regulations and in our future food guides,” said Professor Lamarche.

Since this is an observational study, it is not possible to establish a direct causal link between the consumption of emulsifiers and an increased risk of cancer. The authors point out, however, that their results take into account factors such as age, sex, weight, education level, family history, smoking, alcohol and physical activity levels, as well as quality overall nutrition of the diet.

Professor Lamarche agrees, emphasizing that it is difficult to determine what impact on health is attributable to emulsifiers and what impact is attributable to other nutritional variables. A pastry, for example, will contain emulsifiers, but also a lot of sugar and fat, he recalls.

“And then clinical studies, with fairly high doses of preservatives, emulsifiers, showed that it could disrupt the (intestinal) microbiota,” he added. My question is, does the risk of cancer increase because of changes in the microbiota? (French researchers) are not able to answer that, but it is a hypothesis that is currently being tested in several research projects around the world. »

Moderation and caution are therefore required when consuming ultra-processed foods, but for the moment we must avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, said Professor Lamarche.

“Let's take the example of a muffin that I buy that has desirable nutritional content,” he explained. It’s an ultra-processed food, but will it be harmful to your health? We don't have the answer yet. »

It's clear, he says, that ultra-processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat, with a long list of ingredients, are not good for your health. But it's just as obvious that people won't start cooking all their own meals with fresh ingredients tomorrow morning.

“In reality it’s not that simple,” said Mr. Lamarche. So we need to see if there is a way to reformulate ultra-processed foods so that they are not as bad for your health. »

The researcher will examine this question himself over the coming years. He admits right away that it might be a little “scary” to eventually conclude that certain ultra-processed foods “are not that bad for your health.”

“It would shake the columns of the temple a little,” he said. But this is what we have observed in nutrition for fifty years. With fats we ended up realizing that there are some that are less worse and some that are not worse and some that are very worse. We did the same thing with carbohydrates, fibers, sugar… We cannot put everything in a single category and we have to bring nuances. »

The findings of this study were published by the journal PLoS Medicine.

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