Emulsifiers May Increase Diabetes Risk

Scientists discovered that consuming seven specific emulsifiers found in ultra-processed foods may heighten the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Ultra-processed food consumption has been linked to a wide range of health conditions, including cancer, cognitive decline, and weight gain.

Moreover, previous studies have found that emulsifiers, a common food additive found in ultra-processed food, may be linked to specific types of cancer. Now, a new study published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology revealed that certain emulsifiers may also raise the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The scientists included 104,139 French participants from the NutriNet-Santé study in their investigation. The participants completed questionnaires about their lifestyle and sociodemographic data, health status, and dietary habits.

At the study's onset and every six months, the participants completed three non-consecutive days of 24-hour dietary logs, randomly assigned over two weeks, including two weekdays and one weekend day.

After an average 7-year follow-up, 1056 individuals were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. After analyzing the data, the researchers found that participants who consumed a higher amount of foods containing seven specific emulsifiers were at increased risk of developing the condition.

These include:

  • Carrageenans
  • Tripotassium phosphate
  • Acetyl tartaric acid esters of monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids
  • Sodium citrate
  • Guar gum
  • Gum Arabic
  • Xanthan gum

Tripotassium phosphate, guar gum, and xanthan gum were associated with the highest risk of diabetes. The most common sources of these emulsifiers were ultra-processed fruits and vegetables, cakes and biscuits, and dairy products.

Although this was an observational study, and the findings do not prove emulsifiers cause type 2 diabetes, the study's authors say the results show a direct association between the risk of this health condition and exposure to several emulsifiers widely used in ultra-processed foods.

They believe that these emulsifiers may promote inflammation and interact with insulin signaling and blood sugar stability, leading to the development of diabetes.

In a Science Media Centre commentary, Dr. Sarah Berry, Reader, Department of Nutritional Sciences, King's College London, said, "This type of large-scale epidemiological study is a vital part of the scientific process. However, these studies cannot prove that emulsifiers cause type 2 diabetes. Because products that contain emulsifiers often contain a multitude of other ingredients, disentangling the effects of each compound is challenging."

Berry notes that though emulsifiers are investigated for safety, few studies have examined how mixtures of these chemicals might impact health, and more research is needed to determine any adverse effects.

"With that said, existing evidence shows that a diet rich in the types of foods that contain emulsifiers, which have typically been heavily processed, is linked to poorer health outcomes," Berry explained. "So, cutting down on these foods is likely a healthy choice."

According to the study's authors, the results from this research and the mounting evidence from other studies underscore the need to revise acceptable daily intakes for several food additives, including emulsifiers. If further research confirms the findings, the team says food regulators should consider re-evaluating regulations governing the use of emulsifiers to help protect consumers.

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