WEDNESDAY, Feb. 25, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- A common ingredient in many processed foods might increase the risk of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and metabolic syndrome, a new study in mice suggests.
Emulsifiers are used to improve food texture and to extend shelf life. In experiments with mice, researchers found that emulsifiers can alter the make-up of bacteria populations in the digestive tract.
This can lead to inflammation that may contribute to the development of IBD and metabolic syndrome, the researchers said.
IBD -- which includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis -- affects millions of people and is often severe and debilitating, according to the researchers. Metabolic syndrome is a group of obesity-related conditions that can lead to diabetes, as well as heart and/or liver diseases.
But, it's important to note that this study was conducted in mice, and research done in mice doesn't always translate to humans. This study wasn't designed to show whether or not emulsifiers might cause health problems in humans.
The study was published Feb. 25 in the journal Nature.
There have been sharp rises in the rates of IBD and metabolic syndrome since the mid-20th century, the study authors noted.
"A key feature of these modern plagues is alteration of the gut microbiota in a manner that promotes inflammation," study co-leader Andrew Gewirtz, from the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University, said in a university news release.
Study co-leader Benoit Chassaing, also of the Institute for Biomedical Sciences, added, "The dramatic increase in these diseases has occurred despite consistent human genetics, suggesting a pivotal role for an environmental factor."
Chassaing explained that "food interacts intimately with the microbiota [of the digestive tract] so we considered what modern additions to the food supply might possibly make gut bacteria more pro-inflammatory."
The researchers are now designing experiments to determine how emulsifiers affect people.
"We do not disagree with the commonly held assumption that overeating is a central cause of obesity and metabolic syndrome," Gewirtz said. "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."
The U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has more about Crohn's disease.