In the past several years there’s been in a shift in the way that people view food. For many people, long lists of mysterious ingredients is a strong motivator to walk away. And, as we learn more and more about these additives, the more this approach makes sense. A few years ago, many parents started crusading against certain dyes and preservatives, asserting that these caused ADD and other conditions in their children. Just recently, a group of researchers reported that caramel color – found in a staggering array of foods and beverages – can also expose you to a potent carcinogen. And these are just a few examples.
A new study, though, shows that another common group of additives called emulsifiers could be contributing to colitis, obesity, metabolic syndrome and a host of related conditions. Let’s take a closer look at that study.
Messed Up Bugs
While it’s often a strange thought for many people, you are an ecosystem. Dwelling both on your skin and throughout the inner workings of your body, there are myriads of bacteria. Of special importance are those that inhabit your digestive tract, working along with your body to make sure that your food gets properly absorbed and even producing nutrients that are vital for life.
Clearly, these microorganism are extremely important and do plenty of good for your body. But, is it possible that things could work the other way? Could they have a negative influence on your system?
According to a new study published in the journal Nature, yes. Fortunately, though, the study also gives us clues as to how to keep the bugs happy and healthy – thereby doing the same for us.
Before beginning their research, the team noticed that the trend of obesity, diabetes and digestive problems steadily began an upturn when emulsifiers where introduced to many processed foods. These substances thicken food and can also act as preservatives, making them extremely useful and widespread.
Specifically, the team decided to see what two of the most common emulsifiers – polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulsose – did to the gut bacteria of mice. Interestingly, a diet which included these two chemicals cause the bacteria to change in such a way that it was able to bypass your body’s natural defenses, systems designed to keep it in specific areas. This migration caused high levels of inflammation which, in turn, caused colitis and other digestive disorders. The mice also tended to eat more and were therefore more likely to be obese and develop metabolic syndrome.
It’s also very interesting to note that when the emulsifiers were given to mice that had no gut bugs, they experienced none of the adverse symptoms. When some of the altered bacteria from emulsifier-fed mice was transplanted to the bug-free mice, though, they also developed systems. These additional findings make it fairly plain that it is not the emulsifiers themselves, nor the bacteria, that are the problems. Instead, the issue is when the two are mixed together.
So what does this mean for you? Human studies, and research into other types of emulsifiers are pending. In the meantime, this just drives home the value of sticking to whole, natural foods.