It would be nice to believe that the food that we eat, including any colors, flavor enhancers, preservatives or other chemicals (including pesticides and herbicides) that are added to it, is perfectly safe for us to eat. We trust that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (and comparable international governmental agencies) have thoroughly evaluated the effects that these chemicals pose to health. Feeling like we have to worry about the safety of our food supply is hard way to go through life.
Unfortunately, though, the health of effects of chemical additives have been studied from the perspective of their effects on mammalian and human cells without evaluating the effects that these substances have on our friendly microbes that inhabit our guts (microbiome). This is understandable because medical science has only recently begun to understand the vitally important role that these microbes, which have evolved along with us for thousands of years, play in ensuring optimal health.
We rely on our friendly microbes to help digest our food, manufacture vitamins, assist our immune systems in fighting off disease causing pathogens, control inflammation, maintain a healthy weight and reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Food additives that disrupt our microbiome can lead to illness and disease, not just by the harm these chemicals cause directly to our human cells but also by the more indirect, long-term harm that we experience when our microbial co-inhabitants can no longer do their jobs to our benefit, or worse, start to work against us.
Certain food additives’ harmful effects on our microbiome have been studied and documented, but thus far have neither influenced any approvals already given to specific chemicals nor changed the types of studies that are required during the safety evaluation process.
Safety-testing of food additives, which does not consider the effect of these chemicals on the microbes that make up a healthy human microbiome, is incomplete and ineffective. The rule making has lagged the science in this regard. But this needs to change for us to be able to rely on food safety regulations. Unfortunately, the big pockets that can influence what rules and regulations are put into effect are on the side of the chemical industry.
There are three classes of chemicals that have a negative effect on the health of the human microbiome and that have been shown to have a harmful effect on human health.
Artificial sweeteners are seemingly magical – allowing us to drink or eat sweetened beverages without the added calories that sugar would provide while also enabling diabetics to enjoy desserts. Aspartame, sucralose and saccharin are the most common of the chemicals used to provide a (nearly) calorie-free taste.
Although medical researchers have not, until recently, been able to find a smoking gun to show that these chemicals are directly harmful to our bodies, many of us have felt vaguely uneasy about them – not feeling convinced that they are entirely harmless.
Somewhat surprisingly, although they are commonly used as a weight-loss aid to reduce overall caloric intake, ingesting artificial sweeteners on a regular basis has not been shown to lead to weight loss. In fact, drinking diet soda has been associated with weight gain. Most people who switch to artificial sweeteners in an attempt to lose weight fail to do so. This result is counterintuitive and has puzzled researchers who have proposed several theories to explain it: 1.) the taste of the artificial sweetener preps the gut for incoming calories that do not actually arrive, prompting hunger and later snacking; 2.) those who were already gaining weight were more likely to seek out artificially sweetened food and drink or 3.) those who imbibe these sweeteners believe that they are saving calories by using them so can splurge and eat other calorie-laden treats instead.
Although there is likely some truth to each of these theories, recent research has revealed that artificial sweeteners actually alter the microbiome in a way that directly causes weight gain.
This is a fascinating finding that dovetails nicely with the compelling research that has shown that the mix of gut microbes a person has tend to promote either thinness or obesity, even in the presence of tightly controlled caloric intake and exercise.
In humans and in mice, our digestive system is aided by the gut microbes that live inside us and help to digest food, harvest energy, signal to the body to store energy as fat and to synthesize vitamins. Some types of bacteria are better than others at extracting calories from food and some bacteria produce enzymes that signal to the body to store calories from food by converting it to fat, rather than using those calories as immediate energy.
In mouse and human studies, artificial sweeteners appear to change the population of intestinal bacteria that direct metabolism and that either signal to the body to convert calories in food eaten to either stored fat or to energy that can be readily used. A steady diet of artificial sweeteners seems to increase the relative abundance of microbes that contribute to weight gain. Researchers noted that those microbes that were increased with a diet of artificial sweeteners were the same microbes found in the guts of mice that were bred to be obese.
A team of researchers from Israel recently found that not only did ingesting artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain, they also led to an increase in a condition called “glucose intolerance,” which can lead to an increased risk of diseases such as diabetes, liver disease and heart disease. The control group of people in their study who were fed natural sugars did not develop glucose intolerance.
Studies of the microbes in the gut showed that those volunteers that ingested the artificial sweeteners had high number of Bacteroides fragilis in their guts than the control group that ingested sugar. This is potentially significant as this species has been linked to intestinal inflammation which can trigger chronic health concerns such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBS).
The good news that came out of the study was that these effects could be reversed and the rats returned to health once they were fed antibiotics to kill their existing, obesity-promoting gut microbes. After a time their gut microbes returned to their natural state and the glucose control returned to normal.
It is ironic and very sad that an ingredient used to control weight appears to be undermining those very efforts by causing changes to the gut microbiome that increase obesity and trigger disease.
Given the current state medical science, eating sugar instead of artificial sweeteners for weight and disease control is a better choice for non-diabetic people.
Emulsifiers are extremely common food additives added to all sorts of prepared food and medication. They are chemicals that are used to:
- add bulk to foods
- keep sauces smooth
- keep bottled salad dressings creamy by allowing the oil and water based ingredients to mix
- prevent ice cream from rapidly melting when left out
- keep medication suspended within liquid
Researchers had observed that consumption of these chemicals seemed to lead to higher rates of inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome (a cluster of obesity related disorders including insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes). Rates of these two conditions have skyrocketed over the last 30 years.
In an attempt to study the effect of emulsifiers on the human gut, medical researchers designed a study in which they fed one of two emulsifiers (carboxymethylcellulose, often referred to as cellulose gum, and polysorbate 80, also known as Tween 80) to three different groups of rats. One was bred to be prone to inflammatory bowel like disease, the next was a group of natural, wild-type rats and the third group was sterile, meaning it was bred to have no bacteria living in its gut. Half the rats in each group were fed the emulsifier diet and the control half of each group was fed an identical diet in all respects except that it contained no emulsifier.
The researchers found that consumption of emulsifiers seemed to cause low-grade inflammation, increased weight gain and fat storage and changes in metabolic function in the test subject. Furthermore they observed that emulsifiers altered the mix of bacteria that colonized the rodents’ guts. Ooverall bacterial diversity was reduced in the emulsifier-chowing groups (bacterial diversity is beneficial to health). However, numbers of bacteria which promote inflammation were increased and those bacteria that tamp down inflammation were reduced in number, in comparison to the control groups.
Lead researcher, immunologist Andrew Gewirtz of Georgia State University in Atlanta, and his colleagues suspect that the reason emulsifiers cause these changes is because of their detergent-like properties. The chemicals seem to break down the normal mucous lining of the gut, which makes it easier for the microbes to come into direct contact with the gut cells – leading to inflammation and metabolic changes.
Dr. Gerwitz, as quoted in the journal Nature, says “It is not easy to find emulsifier-free food and products marketed as ‘organic’ are just as likely to contain these agents…When it comes to people making their own decisions, between our studies and others out there, it’s better to eat less processed food.”
Here is a list of common emulsifiers used in food to help with label reading:
|Food Additive Number||Emulsifier Name|
|431||Polyethylene (40) stearate|
|442||Ammonium salts of phosphatidic acid|
|444||Sucrose acetate isobutyrate|
|450||Potassium pyrophosphate or Sodium acid pyrophosphate or Sodium pyrophosphate|
|452||Potassium polymetaphosphate or Sodium metaphosphate, insoluble or Sodium polyphosphates, glassy|
|470||Salts of fatty acids|
|471||Mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids|
|472a||Acetic and fatty acid esters of glycerol|
|472b||Lactic and fatty acid esters of glycerol|
|472c||Citric and fatty acid esters of glycerol|
|472e||Diacetyltartaric and fatty acid esters of glycerol|
|472f||Mixed fatty acid esters of glycerol|
|473||Sucrose esters of fatty acids|
|475||Polyglycerol esters of fatty acids|
|476||Polyglycerol esters of interesterified ricinoleic acid|
|477||Propylene glycol mono – and di-esters or Propylene glycol esters of fatty acids|
|480||Dioctyl sodium sulphosuccinate|
|481||Sodium lactylate or sodium oleyl lactylate or sodium stearoyl lactylate|
|482||Calcium lactylate or Calcium oleyl lactylate or Calcium stearoyl lactylate|
A herbicide is a chemical that is used in commercial farming to kill weeds (or any other plant that has not been bred to be genetically resistant to it). It can also be used to assist farmers in ripening fruit quicker and in desiccation of crops before harvesting. Glyphosate is the most commonly used commercial herbicide and is the active ingredient in Roundup, which manufactured by chemical giant, Monsanto.
Although glyphosate is not a food additive per se, it is a chemical that is found in many non-organic foods that we eat because of commercial farming techniques that rely on it. The plants, including fruits, vegetables and grains) actually soak up glyphosate after exposure. It cannot be washed off before eating it and is consumed along with the food that it has been applied to.
In one study, office workers in Germany were found to have higher levels of glyphosate in their urine than is permitted by the EU to be found in drinking water. Their only exposure to the herbicide was through their diet hence the only reason it was in their urine was because they were consuming it through their regular diets.
The word on the street is that unsuspecting Roundup salespeople have drunk the chemical in presentations to demonstrate how “safe” it is. In fact, glyphosate does not appear to cause any immediate, direct harm to mammalian cells. It does, however, harm many of our friendly microbes that live in our digestive tract. The same chemical pathway that the chemical attacks to kill plants is a chemical pathway that exists in many of our gut microbes. The method glyphosate employs to kill plants also works to kill many microbes that we rely on.
Since we know that the glyphosate remains in food that was treated with it, we know that it makes it through our digestive tract where our gut microbiome is, and we know that many microbes we rely on for good health can be killed by it – that glyphosate can wreak havoc on a healthy mix of gut microbes is not surprising. It creates a disruption to the microbiome, altering the mix of microbes, when those microbes that are immune to the weed killer’s action increase relative to those that are harmed by it.
A disruption to the gut microbiome will not result in immediate, observable harm but instead will reveal itself through more subtle, long-term effects that are the result of it no longer being able to effectively support health. A disrupted microbiomes has reduced ability to support the immune system, aid digestion, calm inflammation, promote a healthy weight, and reduce anxiety and depression.
In fact, the World Health Organization has observed the long-term effects of consumption of glyphosate in people. The organization has recently deemed it as a probable carcinogen, much to the chagrin of Monsanto, who immediately disputed the classification.
Although eating non-GMO produce will reduce overall glyphosate exposure (because many genetically modified plants were specifically genetically modified for the purpose of glyphosate resistance), doing this will not eliminate the chemical from your diet. Farmers also spray non-GMO crops with glyphosate to promote fruit ripening and to desiccate wheat prior to harvest.
The only sure-fire way to eliminate glyphosate from your diet is to eat organic produce and grains. Although this may be impossible to do 100% of the time, reducing the overall load of this chemical in your food is a worthy goal.
Although not made up of human cells, our microbiome is considered by many scientists as another organ that has evolved along with us to benefit our overall health and fitness. Unfortunately, our modern diet contains many substances that are harmful to our friendly microbes and thus to us, too. Even more unfortunately, food safety regulation is has yet to catch up to the science in this regard. We are unwittingly taking part in a chemistry experiment for which we do not truly understand the long term effects to public health.
Be your own health advocate wherever possible. Home prepared food made from fresh ingredients is best, as it reduces chemical exposure. Read labels. Avoid artificial ingredients. Buy organic where ever possible and funds allow it. Try not to become too fearful, however. Total elimination of these substances is probably impossible, but steps taken to reduce overall chemical exposure, will yield health benefits.