Emulsifiers in processed food increases risk of diabetes

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Many of the foods we enjoy daily, from ice cream and chocolate to bread and biscuits, contain emulsifiers. These food additives improve texture, taste, and shelf life, making processed foods more appealing and convenient. However, recent research from France suggests that these ubiquitous ingredients may come with a hidden cost: an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

What are emulsifiers?

Emulsifiers are substances that help blend ingredients that usually don’t mix well, such as oil and water. Common examples include mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, carrageenans, modified starches, lecithins, phosphates, celluloses, gums, and pectins. These are found in a wide range of processed foods, including industrial cakes, biscuits, yoghurts, ice creams, chocolate bars, bread, margarine, and ready-to-eat meals.

The link between emulsifiers and health risks

Previously, food safety agencies had deemed emulsifiers safe based on the scientific evidence available. However, emerging studies indicate that these additives might disrupt gut microbiota, leading to inflammation and metabolic issues such as insulin resistance and diabetes. A groundbreaking research from France was the first to explore the long-term effects of dietary emulsifiers on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.


The French study

A team of French researchers conducted a comprehensive study involving over 104,000 adults in France, who participated in the NutriNet-Santé study from 2009 to 2023. Participants recorded their food intake, including specific brands, every six months over 14 years. This extensive data allowed researchers to assess chronic exposure to emulsifiers and its impact on health.

During the follow-up period, 1,056 participants were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. The researchers adjusted for various risk factors such as age, sex, BMI, education, family history, smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity, and overall diet quality, including sugar intake.

Key findings: Emulsifiers and diabetes risk

The study found a significant association between chronic exposure to certain emulsifiers and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Notably:

  • Carrageenans (E407): 3% increased risk per 100 mg/day.
  • Tripotassium Phosphate (E340): 15% increased risk per 500 mg/day.
  • Mono- and Diacetyltartaric Acid Esters of Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids (E472e): 4% increased risk per 100 mg/day.
  • Sodium Citrate (E331): 4% increased risk per 500 mg/day.
  • Guar Gum (E412): 11% increased risk per 500 mg/day.
  • Gum Arabic (E414): 3% increased risk per 1,000 mg/day.
  • Xanthan Gum (E415): 8% increased risk per 500 mg/day.

Study limitations and implications

While the study provides valuable insights, it has some limitations. The sample predominantly consisted of women with higher education levels and generally healthier lifestyles, which may not represent the entire French population. Despite these limitations, the large sample size and detailed exposure data enhance the study’s reliability.

Photo by Lucas Vasques on Unsplash

The researchers emphasise that their findings are preliminary and cannot establish causality on their own. Further studies worldwide, along with toxicological and interventional experiments, are needed to confirm these results and understand the mechanisms at play. This research could inform future regulations on food additives to better protect consumers.

Next steps in research

The research team plans to investigate variations in blood markers and gut microbiota related to emulsifier consumption. They aim to explore the health impacts of additive mixtures and their potential “cocktail effects.” Collaborating with toxicologists, they will conduct in vitro and in vivo experiments to gather more evidence supporting a causal link between emulsifiers and diabetes.

Public health implications

Given the widespread use of emulsifiers in processed foods, these findings have significant public health implications. Current regulations may need to be reevaluated based on new evidence linking emulsifiers to metabolic disorders. As a precaution, public health authorities already recommend minimising the consumption of ultra-processed foods to reduce exposure to potentially harmful additives.

Being cautious of what is consumed

This study highlights the need for caution when consuming processed foods containing emulsifiers. While these additives enhance food quality and convenience, their potential health risks cannot be ignored. As research progresses, consumers should stay informed and consider reducing their intake of processed foods to safeguard their health.

By understanding the hidden dangers in our diet, we can make better choices for ourselves and our families and contribute to a healthier future.

FoodHealthThailand News

Dr. Nikhil Prasad

Dr. Nikhil Prasad is an independent researcher, medical, pharma and health PR consultant, herbalists and phytochemical specialists and a medical and health writer for numerous international publications and sites including his own sites such as Thailand Medical News. He is based either at Sydney, New York, Shanghai, Mumbai or Bangkok.

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