Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

The Perils of Colorful Sweets

EARLY-ONSET COLORECTAL CANCER INCIDENCE IS rising, with more disease cases among those under age 50 years. The risk has been rising globally since the early 1990s. Scientists project a remarkable 90 percent increase in colon cancer incidence over the next decade and a 124 percent increase in rectal cancer incidence.

We do not have a handle on why this incidence rise among young people is rising, at the same time as the risk for older folks is decreasing. Some speculate that the cause is increased consumption of a Westernized diet (think lots of added sugar, red and processed meat, and refined grains).

Suboptimal diet

Even though I am aware of the numerous problems with the American diet, this statistic rocked me: Sixty percent of the Standard American Diet is made of ultra-processed foods such as industrial baked sweets, soft drinks, and processed meat.

This suboptimal diet is associated with a higher risk of colon and rectal cancer. However, I don’t believe we have high-level evidence, and the studies are inconsistent.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Look at the picture above, and you see pretty colorful and ultra-processed food. My office break room is chock full of delicious-appearing treats this holiday season. Alas, many of the beautiful colors I see are from artificial dyes.

Dietary synthetic dyes and colon cancer

Could these colorings be problematic when it comes to colorectal cancer? I recently came across the work of Lorne Hofseth. Ph.D. The Director of the Center for Colon Cancer Research at the University of South Carolina (USA) has been looking at the effects of these synthetic food dyes on colorectal cancer development.

He appropriately observes that research into a potential connection between cancer risk and synthetic food dyes is in its infancy.

Let’s keep going, even as we recognize there is no high-level evidence to say, with certainty, that colorful unprocessed food consumption increases colon cancer risk.

Food dyes make our food appear tastier. Did you know that people used a variety of substances to add color to foods in ancient times? The ancients used everything from plants and herb extracts to fruit and vegetable peelings.

Other food additives used to enhance color included saffron, carrots, grapes, berries, and pomegranates. Here are other color enhancers: Beets, parsley, indigo, spinach, marigold, turmeric, red saunders (a powdered wood), and more.

People used natural ingredients like plant and herb extracts and vegetable and fruit peelings to add rich color in ancient times. You may have encountered saffron, carrots, pomegranates, grapes, berries, beets, parsley, spinach, indigo, turnsole, alkanet (borage root), red saunders (a powdered wood), marigold, and turmeric were all used as food coloring agents.

Our ancestors also mixed in some natural substances: People incorporated minerals and ores such as azure, silver, and gold. Put aside the fact that some of these substances are poisonous.

Natural dyes for diet

As an aside, if you want to color some food naturally, here is your guide:How To Make Your Own Natural Food DyeDitch artificial food dyes. It’s easy to make your own in a snap with these commonly available fruits and vegetables…www.thespruceeats.com.

Let’s look at things from Dr. Hofseth’s point of view:

  • Gut bacteria can break down synthetic dyes into cancer-causing molecules. We need more research on how the microbiome interacts with synthetic food coloring and potential cancer risk.
  • Artificial food dyes can bind to cellular DNA and proteins. These dyes can stimulate our inflammatory machinery, creating problems for colorectal health.
  • Synthetic food dyes are associated with cancer, at least in rodents.

Thank you for allowing me to introduce the potential food dye — colorectal cancer risk association. While I offer you no high-level evidence regarding the connection, I wanted to give you a heads-up on the recent findings in rodent models. I suspect most of us have bigger fish to fry for cancer risk reduction.

Colorectal cancer — reduce your risk

Let’s look at some other potential risk-reducing maneuvers you can consider:

  • Get some physical activity: A 2016 meta-analysis of 126 studies showed that individuals who did the highest level of physical activity had a one-fifth lower risk of colon cancer than those who were the least physically active.
  • Get colorectal screening
  • Avoid being overweight
  • Avoid a low-fiber (and high-fat) diet or one high in processed meats.
  • Watch the alcohol consumption.
  • Avoid tobacco use

Thank you.


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Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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