A new study in Nature gives yet another reason why you should wonder whether those "healthy" low-fat products you’ve been eating are actually any good for you. A study published online last week, authored by seven scientists, found that commonly used chemicals, including emulsifiers carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80, could cause serious health problems by affecting the gut bacteria of mice.
The scientists added chemicals to the water of mice, keeping the rest of their diets unchanged, and found that the mice drinking the chemical-laced water developed some serious health issues, including obesity, glucose intolerance and, in some cases, bowel disorders.
The authors of the study hypothesized that emulsifiers, detergent-like molecules that are a ubiquitous component of processed foods and that can increase bacterial translocation across epithelia in vitro, might be promoting the increase in inflammatory bowel disease observed since the mid-twentieth century.
Carboxymethylcellulose, also known as cellulose gum or CMC, is used often in ice cream because it is a good emulsifier or thickener — it can be found in Nestle ice cream, among other brands. Polysorbate-80 is also used in ice cream, typically in fat-free ice creams and frozen yogurts. Both products are most often used in low-fat foods. Manufacturers of low-fat foods often have to resort to a bevy of chemicals and additives to match the natural texture and consistency of high-fat products like cream, oil or butter.
What the scientists found with the mice was that the chemicals impacted the mucus lining the stomach, which then caused more harmful bacteria to multiply inside the stomach. Or, in their words chronic exposure to dietary emulsifiers results in prison of the protective function of the mucus, increased bacterial adherence and a more pro-inflammatory microbiota.
Theres obviously some caveats with any study, and some of the mice were fed the equivalent amount of chemicals to a human who entire diet consisted of ice cream. But its still a troubling find that may change the way we view certain chemical additives to food. For example, GoodGuide.com currently lists Polysorbate-80 as having no health concerns.
More troubling is the authors’ suggestion that there may be other chemicals in our food that are also harmful because they were given Generally Recognized As Safe by the FDA and may have not been carefully tested. Remember, this news follows on the 2014 study that suggested artificial sweeteners can also alter gut microbiota and create glucose intolerance. Notably, both artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers are trying to replace things that are considered to be unhealthy for you — sugar and fat — and might actually be causing you health problems of your own.