Research raises questions about emulsifiers' effect on digestive tract

By Ed Maixner

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 1, 2015 - Some emulsifiers, which are used to thicken processed foods and beverages, keep mixtures of liquids and particles in suspension and extend shelf life, may soon be challenged by consumers and regulators as unhealthy and harmful to the digestive system - spelling changes for food processors and farm commodities used for many products.

Food companies and kitchen cooks have long used emulsifiers - some as natural as egg yolks - to complete an extensive array of food and drink products that are, in form, emulsions (see our text box).

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However, researchers recently included a range of high and low doses of two common emulsifiers, polysorbate 80 (P80) and carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), in diets of a random groups of mice plus other mice with known tendencies to digestive tract inflammations. The predisposed rodents experienced severe inflammatory bowel disease (colitis), but even the random groups had low-grade digestive tract inflammations along with signs of obesity and an unhealthy state (metabolic syndrome) associated with that disorder.

Why? The scientists report the P80 and CMC eroded the multi-layered mucus membrane that protects the inner lining of the digestive tract from its own grand array of bacteria needed for digesting food and fighting diseases, and from other harmful invading bacteria. They think the compromised membrane promoted inflammations.

Though the research, by a team from Georgia State University and other institutions, was subjected to expert review, some scientists and food industry groups challenge the way the experiments were done and the whole notion of linking emulsifiers to human digestive problems.

The International Food Information Council, an industry-oriented scientific group, points out that some mice were predisposed to having reactions. It complains that some were given excessive doses that, in humans, “would only be attained if a person were to consume an all-ice-cream diet.” IFIC notes, too, that the Food and Drug Administration approved P80 and CWC as safe long ago, and says the new findings “do not provide sufficient evidence to show a causal relationship between emulsifiers and metabolic disorders,” adding: “The study was done with mice, and the results may not apply to humans.”

Meanwhile, FDA foods expert Marianna Naum says her agency is interested in the findings but says they are preliminary, and “it would not be valid to extrapolate from the results of this limited study any predictions of effects in humans,” or to change the FDA's view of the two emulsifiers as safe.

The GSU project's chief researcher, Benoit Chassaing, agrees that his findings don't reflect effects on people. Rather, “our results were generated with a mice model . . .we are currently working on a human trial in order to investigate the role of such emulsifying agents in human.”

But the research team insists the doses administered were entirely appropriate and says critics are misreading their report. Chassaing points out the allowance in the U.S. for P80 is 1.0 percent of food intake, and for CMC, up to 2.0 percent, while his mice showed inflammation when given 0.1 percent to 1 percent of P80 and 0.5 percent of CMC.

And Andrew Gewirtz, the senior scientist in the GSU group, emphasizes that emulsifiers are used in so many processed foods that the amounts of total emulsifiers given the mice were probably less, proportionately to body mass and intake, than many Americans consume. “Many processed foods contain multiple emulsifiers wherein each can be used at up to 2.0 percent . . . and many Americans consume a diet consisting of mostly processed foods,” he says.

Except for scientific journals, the findings are drawing little attention, including from consumer and farm groups. Chris Waldrop, who directs The Food Policy Institute for the Consumer Federation of America, says simply: “Emulsifiers are not something we've worked on.”

But we asked Center for Science in the Public Interest to review the research, and Lisa Lefferts, CSPI scientist, said the GSU results “raise a cautionary flag about the use of some additives long thought to be safe, and deserve further study.”

And agribusiness appears to be paying little mind even though new restrictions on common emulsifiers could send food processors scrambling for alternatives to maintain appearance, texture and quality of their foods and beverages along with adjustments in commodities used to make them. Gewirtz suggests that food makers might have to one day alter their emulsifiers just as they've replaced trans-fat with healthier options in countless products.

 

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