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The Food Additive That Might Be Making You Sick

I came home last week to find my husband distraught. Not about impending fatherhood or the sale of our home or concerns about our dog. He was torn up over food additives—particularly emulsifiers. "The hippies were right!" he cried with despair. And then he sent me an article detailing a study published recently in Nature magazine in which mice were given two kinds of commonly found emulsifiers in their food and water. The mice then developed inflamed guts leading to chronic colitis and health problems associated with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is not a disease but a group of risk factors that includes obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes.

I'm generally not the kind of person to jump on any kind of food craze. I avoid dairy (except when pregnant) and onions because of my IBS but I am unconcerned with things like GMOs and gluten. While I enjoy organic berries, I've been known to eat non-organic produce and I like grass-fed organic beef as much as the next fancy pants, but I'm OK eating a burger of unknown origins when I'm out. However, emulsifiers with recognizable names such as carrageenan, lecithin, polysorbate-80, polyglycerols and xanthan gum (to name a few) actually causing IBD (Irritable Bowel Disease) made me want to scream from the rooftops, "THEY'VE BEEN POISONING US ALL ALONG!"

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While I don't have Crohn's disease or colitis, I do suffer from inflammation in my guts and I have IBS. My husband, unfortunately, does have ulcerative colitis. When he was first diagnosed, he was living in China. His doctor there informed him colitis was not a disease found in China and that they didn't have the drugs to treat him. He was forced to return to the U.S. to get proper treatment. My husband (along with scientists) have often wondered if there could be a link to colitis and environmental factors.

There has been a significant increase in Irritable Bowel Diseases and metabolic syndrome since World War II (roughly around the time emulsifiers began to be used widely in foods). Andrew Gewitz from the University of Georgia thinks he has the beginning of answers. Gewitz and his research team discovered that two common emulsifiers—caboxymethylcellulose (CMC) and polysorbate-80 (P80)—can change the role of bacteria in a mouse's gut. They change the lining of the gut, making it more porous. This allows microbes to move through the walls of the gut and reach the immune cells and blood vessels on the other side. This resulted in the mice developing severe inflammation. They also put on weight and their blood sugar went up.

While I'm not ready to stop eating that ranch dressing I suddenly like so much, I am also thinking about what we will be feeding Baby when he's done breastfeeding. I'm about to turn into a seriously crunchy mama.

Obviously mice are not people, but the mice were given a much lower amount than what humans are likely consuming on a regular basis. The mice that were genetically predisposed to IBS developed severe colitis while the normal mice developed low-grade inflammation. This was the scariest part of the study for us. My husband's father suffers from colitis and we're concerned that our unborn son may also be affected.

I headed to the grocery store to buy foods sans emulsifiers, thinking it would be easy at my local health food market. Not so. My almond milk—forbidden! My precious ranch dressing that pregnancy is making me crave—emulsified! My vegan mayonnaise and vegan cream cheese—aaarggh! My cereals, oh God not my cereals! Emulsifiers seem to be in everything. Except real food, because, well, real food doesn't need a label.

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While I'm not ready to stop eating that ranch dressing I suddenly like so much, I am also thinking about what we will be feeding Baby when he's done breastfeeding. I'm about to turn into a seriously crunchy mama. It seems like the only way to avoid emulsifiers is to make your own food, a daunting task. But take heart, I was able to find a couple of products that did not have the colitis-inducing ingredients, Mom's Best Raisin Bran and Dave's Killer Bread.

Going forward I'll be looking at labels more carefully and doing my best to avoid processed foods. The FDA says emulsifiers are safe, but the research team are planning on human studies as well as studying other emulsifiers. For me and my husband, I fear it's too late, but for my baby I think I will err on the side of caution and feed the little bugger whole foods. Other kids are going to hate coming over to our house because of the lame snacks but I gotta protect his little guts, right? A mama's gotta do what a mama's gotta do.

Image via Flickr/Eddie Welker

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