Ask the Experts: Goldenseal & Cancer Risk; Wood Pulp in Foods

Find out whether goldenseal can actually reduce the risk of cancer.

Q: What is the evidence on goldenseal and cancer risk?

A: Goldenseal is a perennial herb in the buttercup family, native to Canada and the U.S. Native Americans introduced goldenseal to early settlers as part of their traditional medicine to treat digestive problems, skin disorders, and irritated eyes. Today, the supplement has been promoted for a range of health benefits, including controlling muscle spasms, heart health, treating gastrointestinal disorders, and reducing the risk of cancer. According to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, goldenseal contains a number of natural compounds including berberine, which may have anti-cancer benefits. In laboratory studies, berberine from goldenseal has been found to inhibit the growth of cultured breast and brain cancer cells. However, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, research also has found goldenseal root to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. In a two-year study, when rats were fed goldenseal (the equivalent of over a pound a week for humans) there was evidence of cancer-causing activity. According to the American Cancer Society, current evidence does not support claims that goldenseal is effective in preventing cancer. In fact, it can have toxic side effects, so discuss taking this supplement with your physician before taking it.

—Kaley Todd, MS, RDN

Q: Is it true that wood pulp is used in foods?

A: Most of us just want food in our food. When it comes to additives, we get very suspicious, especially if that additive is something that sounds like a totally non-food item, like wood pulp. Wood pulp (or cellulose gum) is considered safe for human consumption by the FDA. Cellulose is an extender used in crackers, ice cream, puddings, pancake mixes, frozen waffles, some high fiber cereals, grated cheese products, baked goods, and even meat products. Fast food restaurants rely on cellulose for many of the foods they sell. Cellulose is fiber—plain and simple. It is a natural component of all plant foods. So, foods with added cellulose are higher in fiber. Fiber attracts and holds water, which makes it useful for reduced fat food products because it helps to keep them palatable when fat has been removed. Food companies often add cellulose to increase the perceived health value of a food, because the cellulose contributes to the fiber content. As long as the food is labeled correctly, indicating that cellulose is an ingredient, it is considered safe to consume and is not harmful to humans.

—Sharon Salomon, MS, RD

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