A Natural Preservative Used In Food Kills Cancer Cells

Promising treatment to tackle cancer found by a research team at University of Michigan.

Scientists have looked long and hard for ways to fight cancer, but no one thought a clue would come from ‘nisin’, an antimicrobial used as a food additive.

The research team fed rats a “nisin milkshake” for nine weeks and found that 70 to 80 per cent of head and neck tumour cells were killed.

Nisin is produced by lactic acid bacteria commonly found in dairy products.

This natural food preservative is used in processed cheese, cream, canned fruits and vegetables, meats, beer, tomato paste, soups, bakery products and many more food products.

Nisin is a tasteless, colourless powder and the amount that is usually added to food is from 0.25 to 37.5 mg/kg.

Although many foods contain nisin, the levels used are nowhere near effective at killing cancer cells.

The research team used a highly purified version called ‘nisin ZP’, which is an effective antimicrobial agent for food.


The mice were given a dosage of 800mg/kg of nisin ZP.

They studied the potential effect of nisin on treating 30 different types of cancer and infections of the skin, respiratory system and abdomen, along with its effect on oral health.

Professor Yvonne Kapila, the leader of this research said:

“To date, nobody had found bacteria from humans or living animals that is resistant to nisin.”

There are two reasons that nisin is deadly to bacteria:

  1. It binds to bacteria and stops them reproducing or changing into an antibiotic-resistant superbug.
  2. It destroys biofilms (colonies of bacteria that sticks together to make them stronger against antibiotics).

Professor Kapila said:

“Mother Nature has done a lot of the research for us, it’s been tested for thousands of years.”

While the results are promising, the next step is to test nisin in a clinic setting to see if it will work in humans.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology (Shin et al., 2016).

 Cheese image from Shutterstock