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Food or Poison: Propylparaben

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Food or Poison: Propylparaben

Propylparaben (E217)

What are parabens? 

According to the CDC “Parabens are man-made chemicals often used in small amounts as preservatives in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, foods and beverages. Common parabens are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. Often more than one paraben is used in a single product1.”

Why is the use of parabens concerning to us?

A study published in 2021 found a positive association between dietary exposure to parabens and overweight/obesity in adolescent girls2. This study also outlined other concerning negative effects of paraben exposure in humans, pointing out the results of several in vitro and in vivo studies showing that parabens2

  • Have an estrogenic effect
  • Exhibit antiandrogenic activity (counteract the effects of the male sex hormones)
  • Have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and with uterine histological changes (changes in the anatomy of tissues in the uterus) in experimental studies
  • Disturb the function of thyroid hormones
  • Play an important role in fat tissue formation and accumulation, which may contribute to overweight and obesity

Yes, parabens have been linked with an increased risk of breast cancer! Why are we still using potentially cancer-causing chemicals in our food industry? The scariest thing is that parabens have been found in numerous human tissues, including adipose tissue, breast tissue, and tumors3,4. Even though parabens have been banned in some countries and their use is limited even in skin care products, they can still be used as food additives in the US. It is shocking, but the results of a survey of the US population (NHANES 2005–2006) published in 2010, evaluating the presence of parabens in urine samples found5:

  • methylparaben in 99.1% of samples
  • propylparaben in 92.7% of samples
  • butylparaben 47% of samples
  • ethylparaben 42.4% of samples

Propylparaben

Propylparaben is one of these paraben compounds and has been used as an antimicrobial preservative in foods, drugs, and cosmetics for over 70 years6. Humans are exposed to propylparaben (PP) through ingestion of foods and drugs as well as skin absorption of personal care products. In the food industry, PP is used as a preservative, extending the shelf life of packaged foods by preventing the growth of mold and bacteria.  In 2018, authors published the results of a survey (NHANES 2007-2014) of the US population with data collected between 2007 and 2014 that showed that PP was detected in the urine of more than 95% of adults and children7.

Health Effects of Propylparaben

Studies have shown many of the negative health effects associated with the use of PP, including:
  • Disruption of the endocrine system (it is an endocrine-disrupting chemical) 3,8
  • Affects the reproductive system
  • It is considered a xenoestrogen – xenoestrogens are synthetic or natural compounds that can disrupt the normal function of estrogen receptors in the body9
  • May cause deleterious estrogenic responses, such as DNA damage10
  • At levels relevant to human exposure, PP was shown to induce long-term alterations to mammary gland structure in mice11

Propylparabens are associated with cancer risk in humans
A 2023 study highlights the risk of parabens for human health – parabens can be detected in the majority of women and children in the United States, they can bind and activate estrogen receptors (ER) and stimulate mammary tumor cell growth and invasion in vitro3. This is very concerning! This means that exposure to PP can have some very serious health consequences, namely an estrogenic action and an increased risk of breast cancer3

The authors explained that “given that the majority (75%) of breast cancer cases are estrogen receptor (ER)-positive and total lifetime exposure to estrogen is a breast cancer risk factor, the binding and stimulation of ER-mediated cell proliferation by parabens in the culture of human breast cancer and epithelial cells is concerning3.”

Furthermore, studies in vitro of human breast cancer cells show that parabens promote proliferation, invasion, and metastasis, all hallmarks of cancer, and they contribute to breast cancer-associated mortality12

Researchers also say that parabens may stimulate the “precancer niche,” creating an environment conducive for tumor growth, and that exposure during puberty may increase breast cancer risk. This is in part because parabens contribute to excessive weight and obesity2, the latter being considered a breast cancer risk factor3.

A Decisive Study that Led Europe to Ban Propylparabens in Food
In 2002, an article showed that PP affected the male reproductive system in rats by significantly decreasing daily sperm production and its efficiency in the testis, and decreasing serum testosterone concentration13. The exposure level at which this effect was observed was the same as the upper-limit acceptable daily intake of parabens in the European Community and Japan (10 mg/kg body weight/day)13

This led to a report from the EFSA and subsequent advisory in 2004 that the presumed safe exposure level for PP in food was no longer valid because it affected sex hormones and the male reproductive organs in young rats14. As a consequence, the European Union ended up removing PP from the list of authorized food additives in 2006.

Parallel to the ban of PP as a food additive, the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) has recommended strict concentration limits for propylparaben in cosmetics, as well as labeling requirements.

Propylparabens Banned in the European Union

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) banned the use of propylparaben in food in 2006. 

But Not in the United States

The US Food and Drug Administration classifies propylparaben as “Generally Recognized as Safe” and allows its use at 0.1% for each paraben in food15

What foods contain Propylparabens and Should be Avoided

According to the literature, the major uses of parabens in the food industry are for cakes, pie crusts, pastries, icings, toppings and fillings, soft drinks, creams and pastes, jams, jellies and preserves, olives and pickles and syrups6

Unfortunately, the Environmental Working Group reported that PP can still be found in around 50 food products for sale in US stores, in baked desserts, icing and packaged tortillas. Their website states that you can find “propylparaben in 49 widely available processed foods, including Sara Lee cinnamon rolls, Weight Watchers cakes and La Banderita Corn Tortillas16.” You can access the list of foods that contain PP on the EWG website.

If you are following a whole food, plant rich, health-promoting living diet, as advocated by An Oasis of Healing, you would rarely eat any of these foods. However, shouldn’t we protect all the US population from foods with harmful chemicals, that are even being banned from cosmetics, and may contribute to cancer?

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