Overlooked Additive Wreaks Havoc on Our Digestive Systems

A new study shows that emulsifiers, a common food additive, are linked to increases in metabolic syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.

In recent decades there has been a significant increase in the number of people with metabolic syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Metabolic syndrome is not a disease in itself, but rather a group of risk factors that includes obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes. Inflammatory bowel disease refers to ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. All of these illnesses are associated with changes in gut microbia and, in turn, affect one’s digestion.

Researchers have long been puzzled by the rising incidence of these illnesses. Andrew Gewirtz, a biology professor at Georgia State University, understood that it couldn’t be due entirely to genetics, since human genetics have not changed that much in recent decades. There must be external environmental factors contributing to the increase. He and his colleagues set out to study the food additives that are ubiquitous in processed and packaged foods nowadays.

The result of their work was a study published in Nature last week. It suggests thatemulsifiers are the culprits that are wreaking digestive havoc. You might recognize emulsifiers by names such as carrageenan, lecithin, polysorbate-80, polyglycerols, and xanthan gum (among others). Emulsifiers are added to factory-produced foods to extend their shelf life, improve texture, and keep ingredients from separating. All of these are approved for use by the FDA and Health Canada.

The researchers used two groups of mice – one with abnormal digestive systems, predisposed to colitis, and another with perfectly healthy digestive systems. When emulsifiers (polysorbate-80, used in ice cream, and carboxymethylcellulose) were given to the predisposed mice through water and food, the mice developed chronic colitis. The healthy mice developed low-grade intestinal inflammation and a metabolic disorder that caused them to eat more, becoming obese, hyperglycemic, and resistant to insulin.

Emulsifiers appear to disrupt the protective mucous layer that protects the intestinal tract, allowing for the translocation of bacteria and resulting in increased inflammation. The inflammatory response, in turn, interferes with ‘satiety’ – knowing instinctively when one has eaten enough – and caused the mice in the study to overeat and get fatter.

Clearly it’s time for the FDA and Health Canada to do more in-depth testing of these additives. One major consideration is that because so many people eat a lot of processed, packaged foods nowadays, they could easily be taking in larger quantities of the additives than what is deemed safe.

From Civil Eats: “Maricel Maffini [author of a 2013 study on data gaps in toxicity testing of chemicals allowed in U.S. foods] suggests the FDA’s current system of approving food additives could be improved by requiring additive safety to be reviewed periodically and by basing safety information on how much people actually eat.”

There is a better and easier solution, however, than waiting for the FDA to pull its act together. Avoid these additives by making your own food. You’d be hard-pressed to find a recipe that calls for carrageenan or xanthan gum. In the meantime, though, watch those ingredient lists carefully.