Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Don’t Forward the Villejuif Leaflet, Please.

No, citric acid isn't known to cause cancer---yet. While researching something completely different (you know how that goes!) I read about an urban legend of the 1970s and early 1980s, that resulted in millions of fearful people all over Europe and the United States.  I can imagine how many email warnings I will receive from well-meaning friends, if it starts up again!

The pamphlet or leaflet that started the panic was a list of  food additives that contain cancer causing substances.  Among them was citric acid–one of the most prevalent food additives in the world and a chemical  that occurs in every living organism. (Corn syrup is one of the ingredients in a large percentage of the citric acid used in food processing.)

As with many urban legends, whoever originated it (and that was never known) decided to give it more clout by saying it came from the Gustave Roussy Cancer Institute in Villejuif, France.  (Pronounced, I think, as Villzhweef, more or less.) That attribution was untrue and so were the “facts” about most of the alleged toxins and carcinogens on the list.  But, millions of people panicked and products containing citric acid were returned to stores by the bags–there are lots of things with citric acid, you’ll notice.

Apparently Internet access is not required to be suckered in by rumors, innuendos and shocking stories that are not true.  Back then there was no Snopes site to clear things up, but you would think someone would have verified the information. As it was, the list was printed in newspapers and magazines and even pharmacists and doctors referred to it because of  the Villejuif name.  The hospital tried to convince people it was a hoax–but that was seen by some as being a conspiracy to cover-up the truth. As late as the 1990s a few so-called expert nutritionists warned people to avoid anything containing “deadly citric acid”. 

Here is how some researchers think the mistake began:  Citric acid is part of a chemical process called the Krebs Cycle.  In the German language krebs means cancer. So, language confusion probably started it all.  People who didn’t check the information kept it going. Another reminder that just because it’s on the Internet or in an email message–or in a leaflet–doesn’t make it so.

April 20th, 2009 Posted by | Food, Fitness, Fun, Life and Work | 4 comments