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


  1. Hello, Tina. I haven’t commented before but enjoy reading your website and the mix of topics like this one. Citric acid is an organic acid that is naturally occuring as well as industrially produced. I think it will take a long time to tell if it’s harmful in the huge quantities in which most of us ingest it, but so far it hasn’t been shown to cause or exacerbate cancer.

    You’ll find plenty of amateur nutritionists who misunderstand the chemical properties of citric acid and think it’s harmful in any quantity. I regularly receive emails and links to such sites, so things similar to the Villejuif Leaflet (which I had never heard of by the way)are still around. Thanks for your eclectic work.

    Comment by Reader | April 20, 2009

  2. Tina says: Thank you very much for the comment. Please comment again sometime soon!

    I will have to admit I’m not very knowledgeable about food additives. So, I’m going to start doing a bit more research on the labels. My primary source of citric acid is in Diet Cokes, which I know I consume to excess. I’ve cut back appreciably in the last month or two. I would think most of us would be better off without too many “extras” in all we eat and drink.

    I do find the story of the Villejuif Leaflet to be interesting though, coming as it did before the Internet made such stories more easily spread. Thanks again! T.

    Comment by TLR | April 20, 2009

  3. Hi! Guess what? I’m on the night shift now! I voted it so I could go to school during the day.It’s working out good.

    I’m glad you wrote this, because someone told me that citric acid created chemicals that caused cancer, and although I didn’t really believe them, I wasn’t sure. After I read this I looked it up and see that the rumors they told me were all wrong! Thanks! Denise

    Comment by denisek | April 21, 2009

  4. Ms. Rowe, a lot of people talk about how cynical they are, but if they have extreme opinions about something they’ll believe every wild story they read. I guess they want to believe it so they look for something to back them up. G.C.

    Comment by G.C. | April 24, 2009

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