Colorful sweets may look tasty, but some researchers question whether synthetic dyes may pose health risks to your colon and rectum

By: Lorne J. Hofseth University of South Carolina via AP The Conversation

Posted: December 11, 2021 / 6:00 am MST / Updated: December 11, 2021 / 8:04 am MST

candy | Adobe Stock

(THE CONVERSATION) The incidence of early colorectal cancer among young people, defined as those under the age of 50, has been increasing worldwide since the early 1990s. Colon and rectal cancer rates are expected to increase by 90% and 124%, respectively, by 2030.

A suspected reason behind this trend is the increased global consumption of a Westernized diet that consists largely of red and processed meats, added sugars and refined grains. Sixty percent of the standard American diet, also known as “SAD,” consists of ultra-processed foods such as industrial baked candies, sodas and processed meats. SAD is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

One aspect of ultra-processed foods that worries me is how colorful they are. This characteristic is fully reflected in many delicious dishes and treats that are present during the end of the year celebrations. However, many of the colors that make up candy canes, sugar cookies, and even cranberry sauce and roast ham are synthetic. And there is some evidence that these artificial food colorings can trigger carcinogenic processes in the body.

As director of the Center for Colon Cancer Research at the University of South Carolina, I have studied the effects of these synthetic food dyes on the development of colorectal cancer. While research into the potential cancer risk of synthetic food colorings is just getting started, I think you might want to think twice before hitting that colorful treat during the holiday season.

What are Synthetic Food Colorants?

The food industry uses synthetic dyes because they make food look better. The first food colorings were made from coal tar in the late 1800s. Today, they are often synthesized from a chemical derived from petroleum called naphthalene to make a final product called an azo dye.

Food manufacturers prefer synthetic dyes over natural dyes such as beet extract because they are cheaper, brighter and longer lasting. Although manufacturers have developed hundreds of synthetic food colorings over the past century, most of them are toxic. Only nine are approved for use in food under U.S. Food and Drug Administration policies, and even fewer meet European Union regulations.

What drives colorectal cancer?

DNA damage is the leading cause of colorectal cancer. When DNA damage occurs to genes that control cancer, it can result in a mutation that tells the cell to divide uncontrollably and become cancer.

Another cause of colorectal cancer is inflammation. Inflammation occurs when the immune system sends out inflammatory cells to heal an injury or trap disease-causing pathogens. When this inflammation continues over time, it can harm otherwise healthy cells by releasing molecules called free radicals that can damage DNA. Another type of molecule called cytokines can prolong inflammation and stimulate increased cell division and cancer development in the gut if there is no injury to heal.

Long-term poor dietary habits can lead to a simmering, low-grade inflammation that causes no noticeable symptoms, even as inflammatory molecules continue to damage healthy cells.

Synthetic Dyes For Food And Cancer

While none of the FDA-approved synthetic food colorings are classified as carcinogenic, the currently available research points to potential health risks that I and others find.

For example, the bacteria in your gut can break down synthetic dyes into molecules known to cause cancer. More research is needed on the interaction of the microbiome with synthetic food coloring and the potential risk of cancer.

Studies have shown that artificial food colorings can bind to DNA and proteins in cells. There is also some evidence that synthetic dyes can stimulate the body’s inflammatory mechanisms. Both mechanisms can pose a problem to the health of the colon and rectum.

Synthetic food dyes have been found to damage the DNA of rodents. This is supported by unpublished data from my research team showing that Allura Red, or Red 40, and Tartrazine, or Yellow 5, can induce DNA damage in colon cancer cells with increased doses and duration of exposure in vitro in a controlled laboratory setting. However, our results need to be replicated in animal and human models before we can say that these dyes directly caused DNA damage.

Finally, artificial food coloring may be of particular interest to children. Children are known to be more vulnerable to environmental toxins because their bodies are still developing. I and others believe that this concern may extend to synthetic food colorings, especially given their prevalence in infant nutrition. A 2016 study found that more than 40% of the food products marketed to children in a large supermarket in North Carolina contain artificial dyes. More research needs to be done to explore how repeated exposure to artificial food colorings can affect children.

Lowering your risk of colorectal cancer

A few treats during the holidays don’t cause colon cancer. But a long-term diet of processed foods can. While more research is needed on the link between synthetic food dyes and cancer, there are evidence-based steps you can take now to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.

One way is to get screened for colon cancer. Another is to increase your physical activity. Finally, you can eat healthy with more whole grains and produce and less alcohol and red and processed meat. While this means eating less of the colorful, ultra-processed foods that can be in abundance during the holidays, your gut will thank you in the long run.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: colon-and-rectum-172211.

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