Are Food Additives Linked to Causing Obesity and Diabetes?

Food additives are substances that are added to foods to keep them fresh and for enhancing their flavor, color, or texture. There are many people who are sensitive to certain food additives. Apart from this also, there is a lot of research today that is focused on understanding the harmful effects of some food additives on our health. There are some additives that can cause you to put on weight, leading to obesity, and also increases the risk of diabetes. Read to find out whether common food additives cause obesity and diabetes.

Are Food Additives Linked to Causing Obesity and Diabetes?

Food additives have today become a mainstay of our diets. Type 2 diabetes and obesity are two lifestyle diseases that have reached epic levels, with almost 40 percent of all adults in the United States alone being classified as obese.(1) According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as of 2015, 9.4 percent of all adults in the United States have type 2 diabetes.(2)

Eating a diet that is high in fats, sugar, and processed foods are one of the most significant risk factors for both type 2 diabetes and obesity.(3)

However, avoiding processed foods is not an easy task today, considering that preservatives that keep our food fresh for a longer time, can be hidden in many places.

One such harmful additive is propionate, which is an anti-mold agent, widely used in baked goods, bread, and cheese. Eating foods containing propionate may trigger certain metabolic responses in the body that increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Propionate is a naturally occurring short-chain fatty acid that is used as an additive for preventing mold and for keeping foods fresh for a longer time. Some of the primary foods that contain propionate include:

  • Processed meats such as canned fish
  • Dairy products such as cheeses, puddings, and flavored milk
  • Baked goods and bread

Some other foods that also contain propionate include:

  • Commercially prepared potato salad
  • Beer
  • Diet foods
  • Nut butter
  • Vinegar

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set up an international food standards guide known as the Codex Alimentarius, which defines that propionate may be added to many other food items, including dairy and egg-based desserts, sausage casings, sports drinks, processed cheese, and even breakfast cereals.(4)

What Does Research Say About Food Additives Like Propionate & Its Link to Causing Obesity and Diabetes?

Research has found that propionate increases the levels of hormones that are linked with an increased risk of both type 2 diabetes and obesity.(5)

The study, carried out by the Sabri Ülker Center for Metabolic Research at Harvard T. H. Chan School, looked at how chemicals present in food affected the body’s metabolism process at both the cellular and molecular level. The researchers aimed to find some means to solve the epidemics of diabetes and obesity through this study.

The researchers first tested the effects of propionate in mice and discovered that it rapidly activated the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for controlling the automatic functions in mice, including heart rate. This activation caused a sudden surge in hormones, causing an increase in blood sugar levels in the mice. This is one of the most identifiable symptoms of diabetes.

In the study, the mice were regularly exposed to the same version and amount of propionate that are consumed by humans. Over a period of time, the mice gained weight and also became prediabetes or insulin resistant.

The findings of the study suggest that propionate acts as an endocrine disruptor.(6) Endocrine disruptors are substances that are commercially manufactured, but which accidentally disrupt or interfere with the normal functioning of hormones in the body. This can end up causing several types of medical conditions because hormones play a very critical role in the body.

This research study has recently been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.(7)

What About The Effect Of Propionate on Humans?

While the study was primarily focused on mice, in order to test the effect of propionate on humans, the same researching team again designed a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial that had 14 participants.

Half of these participants were given one gram of propionate mixed in their food, while the other half were administered a placebo.

The participants who consumed the food with propionate experienced the exact same surge in hormones as the mice did in the animal study. According to the researchers, this showed that propionate is an endocrine disruptor in humans as well, which increases the risk of lifestyle diseases such as obesity and diabetes in humans.

However, since the sample size of the human study was small, many medical professionals have not accepted the results of this study.

Other Harmful Food Additives

Apart from propionate, there are many other additives that are known for their harmful health effects, and many of these have already been banned by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

For example, bisphenol-A (BPA) is another chemical that has been proven to be an endocrine disruptor. It is commonly found in many plastics and food packaging. The Environmental Protection Agency has already banned the use of bisphenol-A in sippy cups and baby bottles.(8)

At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to conduct several studies and screening tests on many such chemicals to determine whether they are harmful to our health. The agency has been working for years now to protect citizens from such endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Another example is a drug known as diethylstilbestrol (DES). The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that this drug, which was commonly used for treating women who had high-risk pregnancies, was associated with vaginal cancer. The drug was banned in the 1970s.(9)

Animal studies on diethylstilbestrol done in mice found that exposure to this endocrine disruptor chemical can lead to high blood sugar levels and obesity.(10)

While the exact manner in which these endocrine disruptors work is not clearly understood, but experts believe that it has something to do with the changes in the region of the brain that controls eating behavior, hunger, and metabolism.

Conclusion

Even though this research study was done on a small scale, the findings still raise some crucial questions concerning the safety of consuming propionate in humans. When we think of processed foods, our first concern is usually aimed at ingredients such as sodium, added sugar, and trans fats. We rarely think about the food additives added to these foods. There is little known about exactly how additives such as propionate affect metabolism in humans. Still, this research should serve as a reminder to all of us that avoiding or limiting the intake of processed foods is better for our health.

References:

  1. Cdc.gov. (2020). Adult Obesity Facts | Overweight & Obesity | CDC. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html [Accessed 7 Feb. 2020].
  2. CDC. (2020). CDC Press Releases. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p0718-diabetes-report.html [Accessed 7 Feb. 2020].
  3. Smyth, S. and Heron, A., 2006. Diabetes and obesity: the twin epidemics. Nature medicine, 12(1), pp.75-80.
  4. Fao.org. (2020). About Codex | CODEXALIMENTARIUS FAO-WHO. [online] Available at: http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/about-codex/en/ [Accessed 7 Feb. 2020].
  5. News. (2020). Could a popular food ingredient raise the risk for diabetes and obesity?. [online] Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/could-a-popular-food-ingredient-raise-the-risk-for-diabetes-and-obesity/ [Accessed 7 Feb. 2020].
  6. Kavlock, R.J., 1999. Overview of endocrine disruptor research activity in the United States. Chemosphere, 39(8), pp.1227-1236.
  7. Tirosh, A., Calay, E.S., Tuncman, G., Claiborn, K.C., Inouye, K.E., Eguchi, K., Alcala, M., Rathaus, M., Hollander, K.S., Ron, I. and Livne, R., 2019. The short-chain fatty acid propionate increases glucagon and FABP4 production, impairing insulin action in mice and humans. Science translational medicine, 11(489), p.eaav0120.
  8. US EPA. (2020). Risk Management for Bisphenol A (BPA) | US EPA. [online] Available at: https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/risk-management-bisphenol-bpa [Accessed 7 Feb. 2020].
  9. Niehs.nih.gov. (2020). [online] Available at: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/endocrine_disruptors_508.pdf?offsite=true [Accessed 7 Feb. 2020].
  10. Reed, C.E. and Fenton, S.E., 2013. Exposure to diethylstilbestrol during sensitive life stages: a legacy of heritable health effects. Birth Defects Research Part C: Embryo Today: Reviews, 99(2), pp.134-146.

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