A new study has some disturbing news to share with us:
Emulsifiers, which are added to most processed foods to aid texture and extend shelf life, can alter intestinal bacteria in a manner that promotes intestinal inflammation and colorectal cancer.
So, you might be wondering exactly what emulsifiers ARE…so you can avoid them and protect your precious colon.
Emulsifiers are chemicals (in some cases detergents, actually) that are added to blend oily and water-based ingredients in processed foods and to keep them consistently mixed so they don’t separate (ice cream is one food that usually contains emulsifiers – sorry!).
Processed foods often contain several of them. Think food regulators are watching out for us? Not so fast – while they limit the amount of each emulsifier present in a particular food product to 1% to 2%, they don’t restrict the number of emulsifiers allowed.
For this study, which was published in the journal Cancer Research, the researchers fed mice two very commonly used emulsifiers, polysorbate 80 (also known as Tween 80) and carboxymethylcellulose (often referred to as cellulose gum), at doses that matched the broad consumption of the numerous emulsifiers that are added to the majority of processed foods.
The researchers found that consuming emulsifiers drastically changed the species composition of the gut microbiota in a manner that made it more pro-inflammatory, creating conditions that favor cancer induction and development.
“Alterations in bacterial species resulted in bacteria expressing more flagellin and lipopolysaccharide, which activate pro-inflammatory gene expression by the immune system,” the study reports.
Emilie Viennois, from the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University, led the new research. In earlier studies, she showed that emulsifiers changed the good bacteria living in the guts of mice. These changes promoted metabolic syndrome, which is a risk factor for certain chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, and inflammation; those in turn have been connected to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Some cases of IBD can trigger tumors to grow.
The focus of this study was on whether emulsifiers affected cancer risk – colon cancer in particular.
The mice that consumed emulsifiers showed changes in their gut microbes that were consistent with promoting tumor growth. Using a theoretical model for conditions that promote colon cancer, she found that the higher levels of inflammation created by the microbial changes form the perfect environment for cancer development.
Everything you eat or drink affects your intestinal bacteria, and is likely to ultimately have an impact on your health, as explained in Your Lifestyle Impacts Your Gut Bacteria – and Ultimately, Your Overall Health:
Many experts believe that inflammation begins in the gut. Having a healthy digestive system is important because a healthy system filters out things that can damage it (like bad bacteria, toxins, chemicals, and waste products). It also helps us absorb and deliver the good stuff like nutrients from our food.
About 70% of our immune cells are in our digestive system, and they make direct contact every bit of food we consume. If the immune system is triggered by bacteria in food, flags a food as an allergen, or has an imbalance of important hormones such as insulin, it can cause inflammation.
So, how does one avoid the consumption of these emulsifiers?
Simple: Eat real, whole foods. If you must consume processed foods, read labels and avoid items that include these ingredients. Make your own emulsifier-free versions of foods if you can (ice cream is one example).
For more on gut health, check out What is Going on in Your Gut? Your Second Brain, Bacteria, and Your Health.
If you are interested in learning more about your alimentary canal, I highly recommend the educational and entertaining book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by one of my favorite authors, the hilarious and brilliant Mary Roach.