What we've been told about nutrition is often wrong.

Widely used food additives promote colitis, obesity

Widely used food additives promote colitis, obesity
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Yet another reason to think twice about “fat free” processed food.

Emulsifiers, which are added to most processed foods to aid texture and extend shelf life, can alter the gut microbiota composition and localization to induce intestinal inflammation that promotes the development of inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome, new research shows.

The research, published Feb. 25 in Nature, was led by Georgia State University Institute for Biomedical Sciences’ researchers Drs. Benoit Chassaing and Andrew T. Gewirtz, and included contributions from Emory University, Cornell University and Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Food - ingredient

Food – ingredient label – Cellulose Gum

So begins a news release from Georgia State University; I will not have free access to the article until next year.

Food manufacturers use emulsifiers to bind things together that normally stay separate, like oil and water, and to provide bulk. This study examined two common emulsifiers: carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC, AKA cellulose gum) and polysorbate 80 (AKA Tween 80) that are used not only in processed foods but in prescription and OTC drugs.

The researchers noted that there has been a  “dramatic increase” in these diseases “despite consistent human genetics, suggesting a pivotal role for an environmental factor.” The timeline of increased disease and increased use of these emulsifiers suggested the research.


OTC Drug - ingredient

OTC Drug – ingredient label – Polysorbate 80

Key take-aways:

  • This study builds upon prior research that shows us that anything that disrupts “mucus–bacterial interactions” could promote diseases associated with gut inflammation, such as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) and metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance, diabetes, weight gain).
  • Emulsifiers are in almost all processed foods — bread, chewing gum, ice cream, and margarine — as well as toothpaste and mouthwash. CMC is used in gluten-free products as well as low-fat products.

Why this research matters:

Although this is a mouse study, one part of the methodology struck me: dosage (emphasis added)

The team fed mice two very commonly used emulsifiers, polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulsose, at doses seeking to model the broad consumption of the numerous emulsifiers that are incorporated into almost all processed foods.

Food - ingredient label

Food – ingredient label – Polysorbate 80

These were not excessive doses, which is what we often think of when analyzing mice studies. It’s also important to note that when chemicals such as these first first deemed “safe” for the food supply, research was focused on cancer and reproductive effects. Not the digestive ecosystem.


Journal Reference:

  1. Benoit Chassaing, Omry Koren, Julia K. Goodrich, Angela C. Poole, Shanthi Srinivasan, Ruth E. Ley, Andrew T. Gewirtz. Dietary emulsifiers impact the mouse gut microbiota promoting colitis and metabolic syndromeNature, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/nature14232


Known for gnawing at complex questions like a terrier with a bone. Nutrition researcher by necessity: life-long migraineur, complete hysterectomy, colon resection, glucose intolerance. (I have become my mother.) Former food industry communicator. Digital maven; motorcyclist; educator.


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