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Increasing Rates In Diabetes and Obesity Linked To Emulsifiers and Additives In Processed Foods

Studies on the human gut have added further evidence that emulsifiers and additives found in most processed foods are linked to obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disorders.

Studies have used mice to test the effect of two common emulsifiers - carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 - on the microbiome make up and metabolism, finding that relatively low-level concentrations of the emulsifiers resulted in distinct alterations to the gut microbial ecosystem (microbiota) and led to low-grade inflammation and the onset of metabolic syndrome.

Interestingly enough polysorbate-80 it is also an emulsifier used in popular brands of ice cream. The facts is preservatives, emulsifiers, and sweeteners have saturated the food supply for more than four decades.

Emulsifiers are used to improve a food's texture and to prevent mixtures from separating, particularly in ice cream. Last year, Benoit Chassaing of Georgia State University showed that mice that drank water containing one of two emulsifiers underwent changes in gut bacteria and inflammation of the gut -- changes that led to obesity and diabetes in these animals.

However, mice that didn't have any gut bacteria because they had been raised in a sterile environment didn't become ill when given the same additives, suggesting that it is the emulsifiers' effect on the microbiome that is to blame. When the ill mice stopped consuming emulsifiers, their gut bacteria gradually returned to normal.

The question is whether the same might be true for humans. The growing use of emulsifiers has coincided with a rise in obesity and diabetes, says Chassaing, while these conditions aren't as common in countries where less processed food is consumed.

Now Chassaing has supported his findings in mice using a simulation of the human gut. Working with a team in Belgium, he looked at two emulsifiers: carboxymethylcellulose (E566 on EU labels) and polysorbate-80 (E433). When added to a series of flasks that mimic the conditions of the human digestive tract, each caused an increase in the levels of a bacterial protein called flagellin, known to cause inflammation at high concentrations. Chassaing presented the results at a recent meeting at the Royal Society in London.

In addition to this study, there have been studies in Food and Chemical Toxicology which showed that Polysorbate 80 causes infertility. Baby female rats were injected with polysorbate 80 at days 4-7 after birth. It accelerated the maturing of the rats and caused changes to the vagina and womb lining, hormonal changes, ovary deformities and degenerative follicles.

According to Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, Volume 95, Number 6, December 2005 , pp. 593-599(7), "it is of current relevance as a 'hidden' inductor of anaphylactoid reactions", and "Polysorbate 80 was identified as the causative agent for the anaphylactoid reaction of nonimmunologic origin in the patient. The study included a pregnant woman who suffered anaphylactic shock after being given a IV drip of multi-vitamins containing polysorbate 80.

What Is The Function of An Emulsifier?

  • Extended shelf life of bread products through starch complexing
  • Bread manufacturers can improve their production through improved dough handling by using emulsifiers which interact with the gluten network
  • Low-viscosity emulsifiers enable the use of precision liquid dosing systems in modern, highly automated industrial bakeries
  • Emulsifiers stabilise the emulsion in low-fat spreads providing the right stability and mouthfeel and reduce spattering in frying margarine
  • Emulsifiers give baked and snack products the necessary functionality without the trans fats
  • Confectionery manufacturers can improve the cost efficiency of their production of chocolate and chocolate compounds by using emulsifiers to control the viscosity and thereby the loss of product during handling


"The growing use of emulsifiers has coincided with a rise in obesity and diabetes"

The simulator results are more convincing than the mouse studies, since lab animals and humans have vastly different gut microbiomes, says Glenn Gibson of the University of Reading in the UK, who studies gut disorders. "The definitive test, however, is obviously a human trial."

Chassaing is now enrolling volunteers for the first human trial to look at the effects of emulsifiers on gut and metabolic health. Carrying out this study won't be easy, he says, as the participants' diets will have to be strictly controlled.

In his earlier work, the mice were given up to 1 per cent of an emulsifier in their water, which Chassaing thinks reflects the levels some people may be consuming. But Patrice Cani of the Louvain Drug Research Institute in Belgium thinks people who eat a balanced diet are unlikely to be exposed to the levels given to the mice.

Nevertheless, Cani says, we should be concerned. Whatever the results of the human trial, regulators need to rethink the way they test the safety of food, he says, as existing tests were developed before we understood the importance of our gut microbiota and how they can be affected by what we consume.


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