Food additives have many benefits: they extend shelf life, improve taste and texture, and add color to an otherwise unattractive product. They are also highly controversial, drawing a lot of media attention. But are additives really bad for your health? Or are headlines like “e-numbers in ice cream increase your risk of bowel cancer” just scaremongering?
Food additives are carefully tested before they enter petsmart dog food and beverages, and many countries have regulatory companies that assess their security. But recent studies in cell cultures and animal studies have shown that eating a common food additive called emulsifiers can damage the gut microbiome and increase the permeability of the gut — often called “intestinal leakage.”
A leaky gut allows bacteria to pass through the gut wall and into the bloodstream. When this happens, the body reacts with inflammation to defeat the invading bacteria. This inflammatory response disrupts the body’s ability to process glucose and may be a small factor in diabetes and obesity. But so far, this has only been found in mouse and cell models.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re not a mouse. Humans may have been eating emulsifiers for thousands of years-mostly from eggs-but mice haven’t. So studies that give mice emulsifiers to eat or drink have little to do with us — although they provide a great starting point for future research — in order to develop new theories and answer initial questions.
So far, presently there hasn’t been much research into the potentially harmful effects of emulsifiers on humans. The most common emulsifier is usually lecithin, which is found in the cell walls of all plants and animals. Lecithin is probably the most famous ingredient in egg yolks and is known for its role in making mayonnaise, although it is usually derived from soybeans as an additive.
It is hard to avoid
It is easy to avoid some additives, such as artificial sweeteners, because they are often advertised on products. But avoiding emulsifiers is much more difficult. In the western diet, the daily intake of lecithin from food is up to 6 grams, and an egg yolk contains about 1.5 grams of lecithin.
Emulsifiers are also added to a variety of processed foods, including ice cream, chocolate and baked goods, to create a smooth texture, prevent separation, and extend shelf life. This makes it all the more important to find out whether lecithin or other emulsifiers are harmful to our health.
Interestingly, scientists are not only studying the potential negative effects of lecithin. Studies in humans have shown that it may lower blood cholesterol, lower diastolic blood pressure, and increase the availability of bioactive compounds. Health food stores even sell it as a dietary supplement.
At the university of Aberdeen, researchers are conducting a study in humans (known as FDAiets) to determine the impact of lecithin intake on health. The researchers are testing a low-emulsifier diet and a high-emulsifier diet, and their kitchen serves all the food groups in a controlled way.
Researchers took samples from volunteers’ blood and feces and then looked at the amount of bacterial DNA in the blood, the volunteers’ ability to process glucose, the amount of cholesterol in the blood, and the composition of the bacteria in the gut. These results will help them understand the effects of lecithin on human health.
Meanwhile, despite evidence that processed foods and foods rich in emulsifiers are harmful, it’s too early to say we should stop eating them. Processed foods, in particular, play a crucial role in our enjoyment of good food. It’s hard to imagine life without processed how long does food poisoning last.