Just how are food additives affecting your gut?
How are food additives affecting our gut?
Over time, common additives are changing the landscape of our microbiome.1*
Food additives have been around for a while. Pick up any processed food item in the grocery store and you will see a list of ingredients added to preserve freshness, provide color, thicken and add texture. Many of these ingredients are not natural ingredients but others are chemically derived. Over time, the consumption of some of these “added ingredients” is affecting our microbiomes and our health in general.
Salt is a good example and may be among one of the first preservatives added to foods like fish and meat to make them last longer. Today, it is highly overused in processed foods as a flavor enhancer, delivering a whopping amount of sodium that is one of the leading causes of high blood pressure for many.2*
Food additives and the streamlining of food production really took off during the Industrial Revolution. The canning of foods, which allowed products to be shipped, gave way to the less personal interface when buying food. Purchasing foods from the farmer, baker, or butcher was replaced by grocery stores, where people no longer saw the actual food production. These new practices resulted in food lasting longer and being able to travel further. Our food began to change even more as chemists got creative and different additives proved to meet the needs of food manufacturers.1*
The idea of adding artificial ingredients to foods appears many times in history. When food was scarce, ingredients were added to stretch what little was there, or in an attempt to make food look better. Colonial America had regulations requiring inspection of flour and pork barrels. Massachusetts became the first state to ban adulteration of food with many states following in the 1700s. But these laws did not require food labeling. Doctor Harvey Wiley of the Bureau of Chemistry shared America’s sentiment when he wrote the following poem:2*
Oh, maybe this bread contains alum and chalk
Or sawdust chopped up very fine,
Or gypsum in powder which they talk,
Terra alba is just out of the mine.
And our faith in the butter is apt to be weak,
For we haven’t a good place to pin it
Annatto’s so yellow and beef fat so sleek,
Oh, I wish I could know what is in it?2*
Bread contained chalk, foods were preserved with borax, and formaldehyde was used to prevent the meat from rotting. The industrialization of food changed the way we ate as companies chose profits over people in an attempt to have the best-looking food at the cheapest prices. People believed that their food came unadulterated and directly from farms and sadly it wasn’t true.2*
Abraham Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Chemistry in 1862, which would later become the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Harvey Wiley, a chemist was offered the position of Chief Chemist at the Department of Agriculture and created the ‘Poison Squad’ in which questionable food additives were tested on young healthy men, delivered in three square meals a day. Things like borax were fed to them in an attempt to verify the safety of preservatives and additives. From this Poison Squad, Dr. Wiley was able to say that borax, formaldehyde, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, boric acid, benzoic acid, benzoates, and sulfates were unsafe. He delivered his opinion that “…Americans were shortening their lives by consuming the food additives used…”2*
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 brought the return of ‘real food’, though many of the things Dr. Wiley deemed unsafe are in still in use and debated today…things such as bleached flour. So to say we have come a long way might seem shocking, but considering what used to be put in foods, maybe not.2*
Today, the list has just gotten longer. These compounds are used in order to improve the texture, palatability, and shelf life of many foods we find in the grocery store. While great effort is put into assuring the safety of these ingredients, the analysis of these substances relies mainly on how toxic they are on organs such as the liver and kidneys, and less attention is given to the effects these compounds have on cells of the immune system and the metabolic changes they create in the gut, which is connected to many metabolic diseases and obesity, which have a “…strong immune-mediated component…”. 3*
Among these food additives is Xanthan Gum, and a new study reveals the long-term effects it has had on the human gut microbiota. This additive, which was developed in the 1960s in California, was approved by the US Food Safety Authority in 1968 as safe for use in food. Today it is used all over the industrialized world as a thickener or stabilizer in many foods such as ice cream, chocolate milk, baked goods and desserts, dressings, and various sauces.. It is also used as the substitute for gluten in gluten-free foods and can be found sold separately as a dietary supplement for keto and low carb diets. It is generated by fermenting sugar using the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris. The production process creates a jelly-like liquid that is dried and turned into powder. 1*
When xanthan gum was introduced initially to the food supply, it was believed to go straight through the body without affecting the person eating it. Because it has a different chemical structure than other carbohydrates such as starch from plant food which we easily digest, we are now starting to see the long-term effects of eating this additive in that it is affecting the microbiota in the gut of people who consume it. 1*
The study, which was published in Nature Microbiology by scientists at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) in collaboration with the University of Michigan and other international partners, shows that “human gut bacteria have adapted to this additive since it was introduced in the modern diet only fifty years ago.1*
According to NMBU researcher Sabina Leanti La Rosa, “…These additives were introduced in the 1960s when we did not have the means to appreciate the major influence the gut microbiota has on our health and nutrition. With the advancement in microbiome science, we now see the effects that we did not see in the beginning…”.1*
Professor Phil Pose, who leads the Microbial Ecology and Meta-Omics group at HMBU, where the researchers conducted this study work adds “…The gut bacteria we have investigated show genetic changes and a rapid adaptation to enable them to digest this particular additive…”1*
The study revealed that the ability to digest xanthan gum is common in the microbiota in the industrialized world and is dependent on one single bacterium’s activity.1*
This bacterium known as Ruminococcaceae was found among the gut microbiota of many people in industrialized countries. “…In some samples, another type of microbe was also found that interacted with the xanthan gum, this one in the species Bacteroides intestinalis. This bacterium could hijack and further break down small pieces of xanthan gum created during the digestion of the larger xanthan molecules by the Ruminococcaceae bacterium. The Bacteroides bacterium was equipped with the now special enzymes that allowed it to eat these small xanthan gum fragments…”1*
This study is important because it shows how when we consume food additives they can influence the gut, by creating “…a potential xanthan gum driven food chain involving two types of gut bacteria…”. The researchers applied a multi-disciplinary approach to create a blueprint for understanding metabolism within the gut. They hope to apply this to any complex gut ecosystem.1*
Our bodies are amazing at adapting to various conditions, but when it doesn’t recognize something, it reacts by trying to get rid of it, through digestive issues, inflammation, or other metabolic changes. The best way to know what you are eating is to purchase whole foods that you can identify such as vegetables, fruits, meats, and legumes. Consider your source when buying bread, cheeses, and other processed items. If the label contains many names you don’t recognize, chances are these are additives and preservatives put in that food to maintain freshness, add color and make the product more appealing. It is very difficult in today’s world to avoid additives. But being aware of what you are consuming is the first important step. Remember, food producers, are in it for the money. You have to be the one that is in it for yourself!*