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Common Food Additives Alter Our Microbiome

Xanthan gum offers a real gut check.

Food additives and microbiome

If you read food labels, you’ve likely encountered food additives, but do you know how they impact the gut microbiome? Emulsifiers are found in everything from energy bars and dairy-free milks to baked goods and salad dressings. A common one in packaged foods is xanthan gum, often used as a thickener due to its ability to make liquids more viscous.

Now, for the first time, research hailing from the University of Michigan Medical School’s department of microbiology and immunology and published in Nature Microbiology has discovered that a single microbe in our guts from the family Ruminococcaceae can digest this food ingredient and, in turn, drive up its population numbers. From here, a different gut bacterium, Bacteroides intestinalis, feeds on the smaller carbohydrates released by the Ruminococcaceae bacterium.

Interestingly, these gut bacteria are relatively absent in samples from the microbiomes of people from nonindustrialized countries, suggesting that consumption of this and other food additives (now ubiquitous in our food supply) may actively alter our gut microbiome. The next step is to determine whether this altered micrbiota is harmful and potentially one reason why a diet high in ultraprocessed foods is problematic to human health.

See also: Term of the Day: Ultraprocessed Foods

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award–winning food journalist, dietitian and author of the cookbook Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sport + Adventure (VeloPress 2016). He has written for dozens of magazines, including Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness.

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