Tummy troubles? Food additives may be the cause. New research shows that a group of commonly used food additives may be responsible for ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and a number of other conditions.

For the study, researchers from Georgia State University focused on emulsifiers — food additives used to improve food texture and extend shelf life. Emulsifiers can be found in everything from margarine to ice cream to packaged bread. And researchers think that they could cause changes in the gut bacteria that induce intestinal inflammation. This inflammation is often association with Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and even metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that increase a person's risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

To better understand the effect of emulsifiers in the body, researchers fed mice a diet of the common additives — polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose — diluted in water or added to their food. They found that the emulsifiers triggered inflammation, abnormal blood glucose levels, weight gain and an increase in abdominal fat. They also increased the risk of colitis in mice that were predisposed to the condition. 

The researchers chose to look at emulsifiers because they thought it was interesting that their use coincided with a sudden increase in inflammatory bowel diseases starting in the mid-20th century. Yet they were still surprised by how strong the connection was between consumption of foods containing emulsifiers and these diseases.

"We thought that emulsifiers were a good candidate because they are so ubiquitous and their use has roughly paralleled the increase in these diseases," said Georgia State immunologist Andrew Gewirtz. "But I guess we were surprised at how strong the effects were."

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