The U.S. is facing an obesity epidemic. Statistics likewise suggest that nearly 1.6 million Americans have inflammatory bowel disease and it appears that a common ingredient present in many processed food increases the odds of developing these health problems.
In a new study published in the journal Nature on Feb. 25, researchers have reported that the food additives that are often included in processed food may affect the bacterial makeup of the gut and thus cause health problems.
Microbiologist Benoit Chassaing, from Georgia State University in Atlanta, and colleagues fed mice with emulsifying agents, which are commonly added to food to hold together mixtures such as water and fat that tend to separate. They found that this resulted in the animals gaining weight. The chemicals also altered their blood sugar and caused them intestinal problems.
Chassaing explained that the chemical triggered metabolic syndrome and low-grade inflammation. By messing up with the good bacteria in the gut, the researchers said that some commercial emulsifiers promote chronic inflammatory diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, which currently affect millions, as well as obesity-associated diseases known to be associated with diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
"These results support the emerging concept that perturbed host-microbiota interactions resulting in low-grade inflammation can promote adiposity and its associated metabolic effects," the researchers wrote. "The broad use of emulsifying agents might be contributing to an increased societal incidence of obesity/metabolic syndrome and other chronic inflammatory diseases."
The emulsifiers that were used in the study were polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose. Emulsifiers are popularly used in mayonnaise, margarine, creamy sauces, ice cream and packaged foods. These food additives make food products smooth and creamy.
The researchers now test other emulsifiers and design experiments that would assess how this food additive affects humans. If the researchers could obtain similar results as with their study with mice, it would provide evidence that this class of food additive has a role in the prevalence of obesity and other diseases that are linked with chronic gut inflammation.
"We do not disagree with the commonly held assumption that over-eating is a central cause of obesity and metabolic syndrome," said study researcher Andrew Gewirtz, from the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at the Georgia State University in Atlanta. "Rather, our 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."