Food emulsifiers and cancer: Fear-mongering stories needed to dig deeper than the news release

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Joy Victory is deputy managing editor of She tweets as @thejoyvictory.

“This common processed food ingredient causes cancer in mice.”

So much to unpack from just one little headline, which ran on earlier this week.

First, the headline is wrong. The research at hand didn’t actually prove the food ingredient (emulsifiers) caused cancer. Not. Even. Close.

Second, it’s about mice. Yes, it’s good to see that fact acknowledged in the headline, but it’s still the kind of pre-clinical rodent research we’ve spent years urging journalists to resist.

mouse studiesThird, it’s deliberately click-baiting by throwing out an unnamed “common processed food ingredient” and immediately demonizing it by linking it with cancer.

Granted, wasn’t the only news outlet to cover the story; we saw a number of sites tackling this one, including HealthDay news service and Medical Daily, which mostly recycled the news release. But TIME’s headline was the most misleading.

Yet our concerns don’t end there. Unfortunately, none of the news stories we read adequately couched the findings in caveats (and there were plenty). This was likely because the news release from Georgia State University skipped those drawbacks and focused only on the most dramatic (and frightening) interpretation possible of the study, forgoing any attempt to provide useful specifics, including the number of mice studied (which we also couldn’t locate in the original study abstract).

‘This is all so theoretical’

In this case, some of the mice were deliberately administered carcinogenic chemicals and fed emulsifiers in their drinking water to see if the emulsifiers amplified the carcinogens’ effects. These mice were compared against mice who only received carcinogenic chemicals, and not emulsifier-containing water. (The news release didn’t state that all the mice were given carcinogens to induce colon cancer, instead it summarized this step by calling it a “well established model of colorectal cancer.”)

At this point, it’s really anybody’s guess how that translates to people. Yes, people do consume emulsifiers, but we don’t consume the carcinogens that caused the cancer in the first place.

Experts we spoke to said that while this study is useful to fellow researchers working within mouse models, among the lay public, it may cause more confusion than clarification (as evidenced by that TIME headline, which implied emulsifiers caused cancer, when in fact the carcinogens caused the cancer).

“Just what this has to do with human beings, human cancer, human-ingested doses of emulsifiers– is beyond me,” said Dr. Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Sciences University. “As far as I can tell, no connection exists. This is all so theoretical.”

Oncology researcher Dr. Mike Thompson felt similarly.

“It isn’t newsworthy and is part of the usual hype generation yo/yo of results that may (or more often may not) have any relevance to non-homogenized human beings,” said Thompson, of Aurora Healthcare in Milwaukee.

Dietary demons and dietary heroes

Along with perpetuating the notion that pre-clinical research is immediately relevant to outcomes in people, these stories also feed the notion that there are dietary demons and dietary heroes to cheer and worry about–which in turn feeds into the hope that nutrition and healthy living follow a simple, eat this and not that, formula, said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he’s the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute.

“The inconvenient truth of healthy living is that it requires effort, and though there may well be foods and additives that do have minor impacts upon health, no doubt they pale in comparison with the basics – cooking from fresh whole ingredients, minimizing restaurants and ultra-processed foods, exercising as much as a person can enjoy, cultivating sleep, friendships, relationships, not smoking, and only drinking alcohol in moderate amounts,” he said. “If you’re not already doing all of those things, you’d be well advised to focus on them, rather than on worrying about dietary emulsifiers.”

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Comments (1)

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Robert Shewfelt

November 30, 2016 at 9:43 am

I enjoyed your article. It helps put the Georgia State study into perspective. I think the study is interesting, but it is very speculative and draws conclusions way beyond the scope of the results. I have analyzed the scientific article and its treatment in the media on my website.