A creamy, whipped path to IBD and obesity?

As mentioned previously, we’re all existing and eating in harmony with the desires of our microbial hitchhikers.

Interestingly, a recent study published in Nature suggests that the things we eat could actually alter our extensive collection of gut microbiota and predispose us to obesity, metabolic syndrome, and intestinal disorders.

In this article, the authors report that relatively low concentrations of two commonly used emulsifiers – carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 – induced low-grade inflammation, metabolic syndrome, and obesity in mice. To top it off, they promoted the development of colitis in predisposed mice. This emulsifier-induced metabolic syndrome was also linked with encroachment of microbiota (enhanced movement of bacteria across the gut epithelia), and altered microbiome profile with a tip towards more pro-inflammatory microbes.

That’s a pretty concerning link between very ubiquitous food additives and increasingly-common human disorders.

Emulsifiers are detergent-like molecules that are a common component of many foods – they’re used to make ubiquitous, creamy, and downright delicious combinations out of substances that normally don’t want to play nice together. You can find them in bread, ice-cream, margarine… oh, and definitely in anything with a creamy whipped centre. They’re in tons of things many of us eat every day.

And maybe they’re doing us harm.

Regulatory bodies such as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, USA) regard these additives as ‘generally safe’ because they have passed strict tests that indicate they do not cause cancer or toxic effects in mammals.

But, there’s simply no way these tests can ever be that comprehensive. Through the work done by Chassaing and colleagues, we get a fascinating indication into some of the unexpected side effects of these food additives that have slipped through the cracks of standard food testing.

But remember, this is a study focussing on some very specific conditions in laboratory mice. Could emulsifiers be one of the reasons for the rising tide of obesity and its related complications? Perhaps. Further studies will no doubt investigate the effects of these and other food additives on human microbiota. And eventually we will tease apart the details of any possible link between a diet high in emulsifiers, and the development of metabolic or digestive disorders.



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Lauren Wright

Globetrotting Aussie postdoc on the hunt for science, logic, and humanity. I research metabolism, mitochondria, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other weighty stuff.

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