Why processed foods make you fat: two common food additives linked to obesity and gut inflammation

A new study suggests that two very common emulsifiers – chemicals that stabilize foods and stop products like mayo from separating – could increase the risk of obesity and irritable bowel syndrome.

Mayo and mustard are among the products which almost always contain emulsifiers. Image via Wiki Commons.

The emulsifiers in question are carboxymethycellulose and polysorbate-80; especially in Europe and North America, they are commonly used in processed foods (mayo, ketchup, numerous sauces, ice cream, gluten-free products, fat-free products and many others) and other common products (toothpaste, detergents etc). The study conducted on mice showed that even in low concentrations, these substances drastically affect the gut bacteria which seems to lead to obesity as well as a number of gut-related problems.

In recent times, numerous studies have shown that gut bacteria is crucial to our well-being; it’s important to our weight, immune system and digestive health… it may even control our mind (seriously). Anything disrupting the activity of the “good bacteria” in the gut has the potential to do massive damage. With this in mind, the scientists who conducted this new study might have found why processed food make us so fat, and why gut conditions like irritable bowel syndrome have increased since the mid-twentieth century, especially in association with processed foods.

Andrew Gewirtz at Georgia State University and his team added the two emulsifiers in varying levels to the drinking water of lab mice. They found that most healthy mice who were given the emulsifiers soon developed metabolic problems and/or became obese. When they fed mice even more emulsifiers, they started to develop inflammatory gut diseases, with the severity of the affection being directly linked to the quantity of ingested emulsifiers. These effects were seen even in mice that consumed the equivalent of just one-tenth of the concentration of the emulsifiers that the FDA permits in food products.

The researchers then wanted to see why this happens, so they tested the gut bacteria of these animals and found that the emulsifiers destroy much of the microbial fauna in the gut (again, this microbial fauna is actually beneficial to the body).

Scientists advise eating less processed foods. Image via Wiki Commons.

This is extremely worrying because it’s not easy to find emulsifier-free foods – products labeled as ‘organic’ are just as likely to contain these substances, as emulsifiers are not generally considered processed (I’m really not sure why though). Gewirtz says that many more human and animal studies need to be completed before regulatory agencies would consider changing how additives are approved – but it seems clear that we need to change the way we approve and the way we eat, especially when it comes to processed foods.

The next step would be to move on to human tests and see how our bodies are reacting to these substances. Over the past 50 years, no study has conclusively found that food additives are toxic in mammals, but then again, no large studies have ever focused on the gut bacteria.

Overall, this paper adds a lot to the idea that processed foods have long-lasting and hard to understand effects on our bodies – effects which aren’t at all positive.

Immunologist Andrew Gewirtz at Georgia State University in Atlanta who was also involved in the study concluded:

“When it comes to people making their own decisions, between our studies and others out there, it’s better to eat less processed food,” he says.

You can read the full scientific paper for free, at Nature.

12 thoughts on “Why processed foods make you fat: two common food additives linked to obesity and gut inflammation

  1. Tom of the Missouri

    People are starting to catch on about labortory created foods and food substances. This is exactly the problem with GMOs. Scientist, who don’t have a clue about risk or apparently science either, argue that they are safe just because no one has been harmed yet that we know of. Also the only studies that have been done, if any are done at all, are short term ones. With foreign substances introduced into food like these emulsifiers or like with GMO’s the only way they can be proven safe for widespread use is through long term isolated human testing with a control group. That was never done with this substance and has never been done on GMO’s. To put it in a purely scientific parlance, the absence of harm (especially short term) is not evidence or proof of safety long term. That is a logical fact from the scientific method.

    What is the alternative? That is easy. Eat traditional food grown and raised the traditional way which means with organic or proven natural methods. Traditional foods are the non processed foods civilizations have been eating for hundreds and thousand and maybe millions of years without harm. Their long term use substitutes for the study. Using GMOs without such a long term study, which is probably impossible to conduct, or without long term human use is like using human populations as the laboratory experimental animals. The deeper problem though with GMO’s is that they can’t easily be called back once their genetic makeup has spread around the world. Emulsifiers are bettter in that we can now simply stop using them and people’s gut bacterial will hopefully return to normal. The same can’t be said with GMO corn plants that might eventually be found out to seriously harm to humans because once the new genes have infiltrated for example all corn plants around the world and traditonal plants have ceased to exist, they can’t easily be recalled. Unlike the problem with emulsifiers, this is called a worldwide human catastrophe that can’t easily be fixed.

  2. vepxistqaosani

    You know what’s an emulsifier? Egg yolks. And the science boffins have
    just decided that dietary cholesterol (such as that in egg yolks) isn’t
    actually bad for you, after all.

  3. JWJ

    “…in varying levels to the drinking water of lab mice. They found that
    most healthy mice who were given the emulsifiers soon developed
    metabolic problems and/or became obese”

    Couldn’t they at least mention a functional equivalent human dosage amount? So we could get an idea of how much mayonnaise would need to be consumed to become obese. Is this eating the amount of mayonnaise in one BLT per day or half a jar of Hellmans?

  4. bowman

    I’m sorry but do you seriously think they’ve done long term studies on how corn, wheat, bread, apples, or carrots affect gut bacteria?

    People die and that’s a pretty serious condition. Since we haven’t determined what causes aging and dying, its a little early to conclude that the non-processed foods which civilizations have been eating for hundreds and thousands and maybe millions of years have caused no harm.

  5. Tom of the Missouri

    The long term studies have been done to some extent. They are called anthropology and archaeology We know that in the millions of years leading up to the last ten thousand years (the paleolithic era) humans did not have rotten teeth, osterperosis,obesity and cancer. We can tell from looking at their dug up skeletons) and they were presumably eating your described diet, except you left out their main food – fat and protein from pasture raised i.e., wild animals. We also know that during the last ten thousand years and up until the last hundred years (the neothlitic or farming era) that primitive societies like (the inuit in the artic circle, the masai tribes in Africa, grass fed dairy eaters of the Swiss mountains and south sea islanders) who mimicked primitive diets also did not have heart disease, osteoperosis, obesity, rotten teeth and cancer). BTW, many of the neotholitic farmers, like the Egyptians for example who ate mainly grain (i.e., carbohydrates), did have osteoperosis and rotten teeth. As to processed foods, they are relatively new to human consumption and we don’t have proof of their effects, , but we do know that we now have unprecedented epidemics of heart disease, cancer, obesity and dental problems. We don’t have proof since it is very hard to put people in cages in laboratories and accurately measure what they eat and have control groups in cages to accurately measure the different effects (which is the only way we will ever know for sure) , but it logically seems like the likely hypothesis is that something in our environment, likely what we are eating, which has drastically changed, is the culprit. The easiest solution is thus to eat traditional foods or unprocessed foods, including lots of animal fat and protein,. which the paleolithc people ate and even our relatives of 50 years ago ate to a large extent, and did not have those effects.

  6. JS

    The journal article itself explains this more. They gave the mice a similiar dose (1-2% of total food consumption) of these emulsifiers that an average person would consume eating an American diet. These chemicals are hiding everywhere, even in “healthy” snacks like Special K, Fiber One, and Nature Valley bars. It is quite scary.

  7. nnyan

    I think you insinuate a much more comprehensive understanding of what anthropology and/or archaeology tell us about the health and well being of prehistoric cultures then the reality. Just consider that the fossil record by its very nature reflects sampling biases. Hunter/Gatherers of our past were not immune from many of the problems you proclaim them to be. For example a recent study in The Lancet (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23489753) looked for signs of atherosclerosis—arteries clogged with cholesterol and fats—in more than one hundred ancient mummies from societies of farmers, foragers and hunter–gatherers around the world and found evidence in nearly 40% of the samples.

    Cancer is another disease that gets mentioned often (or lack thereof). But if you look at it logically, 77% of cancers are diagnosed in people 55 or older. With typical life spans being under 50 years most cancer patients would have died of something else. But there have been multiple cases showing cancer in prehistoric societies.

    You also need to consider that the diet of a Neolithic person was very different than that of someone living the Paleolithic era. There are a multitude of studies that have shown the poor nutritional and health status of prehistoric societies.

    Having said that just the fact that processed foods typically contain less nutritional value and are often packed with sugars and preservatives are enough for my family to avoid them as much as possible.

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  9. Jon Steedley

    Hello, all.
    This is just more evidence supporting the position that our food supply has become polluted with non-food substances, and that these are seriously detrimental to people–ourselves & our families, and even threaten our nation’s wellbeing.
    It’s too bad that most people are not only unaware of this problem, but seem to be unconcerned about their own health.
    We can *not* expect the ‘government’ to ‘look out for us,’ so the surest way to resolve this is to simply not buy products containing these compounds. Additionally, find a product YOU use that contains one or more of these non-food ingredients, and email the sellers. distributors, and manufacturers. Tell them that you are boycotting ALL their products, until they stop poisoning their customers with non-food substances.
    Most importantly, pray for the Kingdom of God.

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