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Gut Bacteria Altered By Emulsifiers

First Posted: Feb 25, 2015 05:01 PM EST

Statistics estimate that close to 1.6 million Americans have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), otherwise known as ongoing inflammation of part or all of the digestive tract.

Findings in the journal Nature show that a common ingredient found in many processed foods man increase the risk of this health issue, typically classified in ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.

Oftentimes, emulsifiers are used to improve food texture and extend shelf life. Yet researchers found that when mice were used in experiments, the same emulsifiers altered the make-up of bacteria populations found in the digestive tract.

These groups of oil-and water-friendly molecules help to hold food together and can be found in foods like mayonnaise. Without emulsifiers, the oil would make its way to the top, leaving a clumpy, white residue on the bottom.

"The dramatic increase in these diseases has occurred despite consistent human genetics, suggesting a pivotal role for an environmental factor," study co-author Benoit Chassaing, a researcher from GSU's Institute for Biomedical Sciences, said in a news release. "Food interacts intimately with the microbiota, so we considered what modern additions to the food supply might possibly make gut bacteria more pro-inflammatory."

In many instances, scientists agree that we are what we eat. If you're not eating well, not only are you increasing your chances of weight gain and health issues, but you could also be increasing your risk for intestinal inflammation.

"We do not disagree with the commonly held assumption that over-eating is a central cause of obesity and metabolic syndrome," concluded coauthor Andrew T. Gewirtz, a researcher from GSU's Institute for Biomedical Sciences. "Rather, our findings reinforce the concept suggested by earlier work that low-grade inflammation resulting from an altered microbiota can be an underlying cause of excess eating."

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