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Emulsifiers and the Microbiome

I listened to a presentation by Dr. Janese Laster, a gastroenterologist. She mentioned the harmful effects of emulsifiers on the digestive microbiome. The microbiome is the collection of microorganisms that live on or in the human body. Emulsifiers are food additives that help oil parts in an ultra-processed food mix with the water parts to form a consistent mixture.

If you have eaten old fashioned peanut butter, the oily part separates from the solid part. People tend to mix these parts together before consuming. Commercial versions of peanut butter never separate because they have added emulsifier agents. (For a list of approved emulsifiers by name in Canada, please click here).

Dr. Benoit Chassaing has researched two emulsifiers called carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 in mice. He used these two emulsifiers because they are not absorbed by digestion. When he put these two chemicals in mice chow, their body weight increased. He showed that the mucous layer that protects the intestinal cells from the microbiome became thinner. This is a problem because the microbiome has a greater chance of eliciting an immune response which causes inflammation. More breaks in the tight junctions between intestinal cells were found. This is also bad because food and the microbiome can more readily enter the bloodstream and elicit an immune reaction. Scientifically, this is called hyperpermeability, also known as leaky gut syndrome. These two chemicals caused metabolic syndrome in the mice. According to the National Institutes of Health, metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors that raises your chance of disease. To listen to Dr. Chassaing describe his research, please click here.

Dr. Kevin Hall, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), did a similar study in humans. He compared an ultra-processed diet to an unprocessed diet. He found that people who ate the ultra-processed diet showed signs of metabolic syndrome.

Dr. Hall’s processed diet would contain emulsifiers similar to those used in Dr. Chassaing’s research. Both the mice and the humans showed signs of metabolic syndrome when eating ultra-processed food containing these chemicals. The inference is the emulsifiers are responsible.

This is not conclusive proof. However, given the detrimental health risk of ultra-processed foods, this would be another reason to avoid them. I have switched brands of coconut milk to avoid the emulsifiers. I am applying the precautionary principle until more research becomes available. Please consider a whole-food, plant-based diet. Your microbiome and body will thank you. Thanks for reading! #lifestylemedicine #seniors #olderadults

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash

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