It is not enough to look out for artificial colors and flavors in the food you eat. There are other food additives to watch out for, and they are called emulsifiers. Researchers have linked them to inflammatory bowel disease and obesity. Emulsifiers are added to processed foods for texture and to make their shelf life longer. They can change gut microbiota and cause intestinal inflammation and metabolic syndrome. Researchers at Georgia State University Institute for Biomedical Sciences led the study, which was published in the journal Nature.
Read more about your gut microbiome
Millions of people suffer from IBD, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Metabolic syndrome is a group of common obesity-related disorder that may lead to type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and liver diseases. Incidences of both IBD and metabolic syndrome have greatly increased since the mid-20th century. Gut microbiota are the 100 trillion bacteria that live in our intestinal tracts. In both IBD and metabolic syndrome gut microbiota are disturbed and researchers find that emulsifiers may be partially to blame for the disturbance and the increased incidence of both diseases.
Researchers fed mice doses of two commonly used emulsifiers, polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulsose, that modeled the broad consumption of emulsifiers. What they found is that emulsifiers changed the gut microbiota in the mice, making it more pro-inflammatory. The changes in the microbiota triggered chronic colitis in mice that were genetically prone to the disorder. Mice with normal immune systems had mild intestinal inflammation and/or metabolic syndrome from consuming the emulsifiers. As a result, they ate more and were more prone to obesity, hyperglycemia and insulin resistance.
Researchers concluded that the results “support the emerging concept that perturbed host-microbiota interactions resulting in low-grade inflammation can promote adiposity and its associated metabolic effects.” The results also suggest that the common use of emulsifiers “might be contributing to an increased societal incidence of obesity/metabolic syndrome and other chronic inflammatory diseases.”
Drs. Benoit Chassaing and Andrew T. Gewirtz are the Georgia State University researchers who led the study. In a statement, Gewirtz characterized IBD and metabolic syndrome as “modern plagues.” While he said that they agree with the “commonly held assumption” that over-eating is a key component cause of both metabolic syndrome and obesity, their “findings reinforce the concept suggested by earlier work that low-grade inflammation resulting from an altered microbiota can be an underlying cause of excess eating.”
“The dramatic increase in these diseases has occurred despite consistent human genetics, suggesting a pivotal role for an environmental factor,” said Chassaing. “Food interacts intimately with the microbiota so we considered what modern additions to the food supply might possibly make gut bacteria more pro-inflammatory.”
Given the problems associated with food additives, it is best to avoid foods that contain them. And the best way to do that is to eat a diet low in processed foods. Pick foods that are “whole” like vegetables and fruit.