Additives commonly found in food may cause metabolic syndrome and obesity, according to a new study. Researchers of the study found that common food additives increase levels of hormones which are associated with an increased risk of both diabetes and obesity.
Understanding how food ingredients affect the body’s metabolism at the cellular and molecular level could help us develop effective measures to tackle the epidemics of diabetes and obesity. Therefore, the recent study finds one food additive may be responsible for many health problems.
The food additive is propionate which is a naturally occurring fatty acid. It is used to keep foods fresh and prevent mold. Some foods comprising propionate include;
- bread and baked goods
- dairy products, including cheeses, flavored milk, and puddings
- processed meats such as sausage casings and canned fish
Other foods with propionate include sports drinks, beer, diet foods, commercially prepared nut butter, potato salad, and vinegar.
Effects were first seen in mice
Initially, researchers tested propionate in mice and found that it quickly activated the sympathetic nervous system of mice. This caused a hormonal surge which increased blood sugar levels in the mice, a characteristic sign of diabetes.
Further, when the test animals were regularly exposed to the same concentration of propionate normally consumed by humans, they gained weight and became insulin resistant. Hence, the research findings propose that propionate is an endocrine disruptor.
According to the researchers, endocrine disruptors are chemicals usually produced for commercial purposes. These chemicals accidentally interfere with the normal role of hormones which can cause a wide array of health conditions.
Humans responded the same
The researchers designed a double-blind, placebo-controlled study with 14 participants to see how these findings applied to humans. For this, half of the participants took one gram of propionate in food. While the other half ingested a placebo.
Those participants who had food with propionate experienced the same surge in hormones as the mice. According to the scientists, this shows that propionate may be an endocrine disruptor which increases the risk of diabetes and obesity in humans.
Obesity and diabetes are complex conditions which are due to environmental, genetic, and behavioral factors. The incidence of diabetes and obesity has grown intensely over the past two decades. Since the human gene pool has not changed during that time, researchers are in search of environmental factors. But, some medical professionals are cautious to accept the results, at least for now.
Some additives already banned
Bisphenol-A (BPA) has already been banned from baby bottles and sippy cups. It is an endocrine-disrupting chemical which is found in plastics and food packaging.
Work has been continuing for some decades to protect the community from endocrine-disrupting chemicals. For this purpose, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting screening tests on several chemicals.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) was linked to a rare form of vaginal cancer. This chemical was used to treat women with high-risk pregnancies until it was banned in the 1970s.
Like propionate, animal study has also confirmed an association with obesity and high blood sugar. “Studies in mice confirmed that disclosure to the endocrine-disruptor chemical DES in young individuals can cause high blood-sugar levels and obesity.
Researchers explained that the exact mechanism is not completely understood, but “it may have to do with changes in that part of the brain which regulates eating behavior, hunger, and metabolism.”