Aside from the added sugars and harmful trans fats, scientists from Georgia State University offer another reason to avoid processed foods: common food additives called emulsifiers. Emulsifiers are used to improve texture and shelf life in a variety of food products, but results of a study involving mice show that these additives may be changing our gut bacteria in a way that promotes inflammation—which in turn increases the risk of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), metabolic syndrome and obesity.
For the study, some of the mice were given a human-equivalent dose of two common emulsifiers used in processed foods, while the others were fed a placebo. Afterward, researchers noted significant changes in the gut bacteria of the mice who received the emulsifiers. The altered bacteria were able to penetrate the intestinal lining and activate certain proteins that trigger an inflammatory response in the body. The results ranged from mild intestinal inflammation to chronic colitis, weight gain and metabolic syndrome.
According to study authors, cases of IBD and metabolic syndrome have risen dramatically since around the 1950s—about the time processed foods became extremely popular. They believe dietary changes may be a key factor, pointing out that food interacts “intimately” with our unique gut bacterial colonies, and the addition of chemicals such as emulsifiers may be causing a rise in inflammatory diseases.