A COMMON ingredient found in the kitchen cupboard may fuel the spread of cancer, scientists say.
Palm oil is found in almost half of all supermarket products, in both food and cosmetics.
It contains a compound called palmitic acid which scientists say is “extremely potent” for promoting advanced cancer.
Mice were fed a diet which contained the acid, and experts watched as it made skin and mouth tumours “highly metastatic”.
Metastatic cancer is when the disease has spread. It usually can’t be cured, only treated.
Dr Gloria Pascual, of Barcelona’s Institute for Research in Biomedicine, wrote in the journal Nature: “Tumours from mice that were fed a short-term palm-oil-rich diet, or tumour cells that were briefly exposed to PA in vitro, remained highly metastatic even after being serially transplanted.”
The researchers also tested the mice on a diet of olive oil and found it did not increase the spread of tumours.
Olive oil and flax seeds also contain fatty acids called oleic acid and linoleic acid.
The team hope that their findings, published in the journal Nature, could pave the way for new treatments.
Professor Salvador Aznar-Benitah, senior group leader at IRB Barcelona and ICREA research professor, and senior author of the paper, said: "There is something very special about palmitic acid that makes it an extremely potent promoter of metastasis.
"I think it is too early to determine which type of diet could be consumed by patients with metastatic cancer that would slow down the metastatic process.
“That said, based on our results one would think that a diet poor in palmitic acid could be effective in slowing down the metastatic process, but much more work is needed to determine this.”
Dr Helen Rippon, chief executive at Worldwide Cancer Research, said: “This discovery is a huge breakthrough in our understanding of how diet and cancer are linked and, perhaps more importantly, how we can use this knowledge to start new cures for cancer.
“Metastasis is estimated to be responsible for 90% of all cancer deaths – that’s around nine million deaths per year globally.
“Learning more about what makes cancer spread and – importantly – how to stop it is the way forward to reduce these numbers.”
Palm oil is a major contributor to climate change, with an estimated 200,000 square miles of rainforest hacked down to set up plantations.
It is used in major brands of chocolate, peanut butter, pizza, instant noodles, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant and lipstick, among many other things.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a vegetable oil made from the fleshy fruit of oil palms.
It has been used for thousands of years as cooking oil, in soap products, and was also used as an industrial lubricant during the Industrial Revolution.
It contains a high concentration of saturated fat, and the World Health Organisation encourages us to limit our intake of the oil.
It’s found in many everyday products, from lipsticks to washing detergent and food.
Many foods list palm oil as "vegetable oil" so it can be tricky to spot, as it can come under many different names.
It can be listed as: Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palm olein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine – and many more, so it’s not always obvious to spot.
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