Are Emulsifiers Destroying Your Gut Microbiota?

Research into gut bacteria is an interest of mine. I started occasionally reviewing the DNA of my own microbial boime over a year ago. I was curious if I’d be able to witness known research, or my own hypotheses, in action after dietary changes.

Last summer, after a simple diet change, I saw a very dramatic drop in bacteria diversity. At first I wondered if the DNA analysis was faulty, as the drop was huge, but later I read a study on emulsifiers and realized it was possible I was viewing the findings of this study.

Here’s a graph of my uBiome data.

Gut Bacteria Chart Showing Dip in Quantity and Variability During Summer

Each color represents a different category of bacteria. The dramatic dip in the middle shows the variety of bacteria in my system being dramatically reduced.

To understand why I’m interested in this topic, I should mention that I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease over 20 years ago, but have been able to keep it in remission using diet. Cane sugar seems to trigger an autoimmune reaction, so I avoid it as best as I can. Beet sugar, the other common white sugar, does not trigger this reaction, and luckily I live near the heart of beet sugar production.

One item I could never find with beet sugar was ice cream.I tried various ice cream brands, and contacted multiple companies in my search. I typically made my own ice cream in a Vitamix, but last year I discovered a brand manufactured in Michigan that was readily available in stores. Since Michigan is beet sugar territory, I decided to try it. No autoimmune reaction. I researched their ingredients and found that they used beet sugar for their cheaper regular ice cream, and cane sugar only in their more expensive all natural ice creams. Wahoo! I’d found ice cream I could eat!

Last summer we ate one to two boxes of ice cream each week, trying many flavors this company made.

It just so happened that I had done a gut bacteria DNA analysis just prior to this summer of ice cream. I decided to do another after many weeks of ice cream indulgence. The result was the dip you see above. I decided to cut out the ice cream, and over the next six months my gut bacteria levels slowly started rebuilding.

When I realized it coincided with eating ice cream as the only big dietary change, I wondered why? Was it the sugar? That would be odd, as I’d consumed beet sugar in my own cooking. Was it an increase in dairy? I’d been eating dairy without issue, though I do have to take lactase supplements? I’m the only person in my immediate family that is lactose intolerant. Lactose gives me headaches if I don’t take enzymes. I wondered if the additional enzymes could have been a problem?

Then early in 2015 my wife passed me a science article that discussed a study in which scientists proved that common emulsifiers found in processed foods destroyed the gut bacteria in mice. I decided to look at the ingredients of what we had consumed during our Summer Of Ice Cream, and what do you know, we had added large quantities of multiple emulsifiers to our diet, including the exact one used in the study, polysorbate-80. Was it possible I was viewing the results of their study? It was the only ingredient in the ice creams we enjoyed that I do not normally consume.

Emulsifiers are used to blend ingredients that don’t normally want to mix together, for example oil and water. They can work similar to a detergent, breaking down the oil so it will mix into water. Emulsifier use grew when food manufacturers began the low-fat craze about thirty years ago. Ice cream didn’t originally need emulsifiers because real cream worked fine to create ice cream. When cheaper, lower-fat ingredients were introduced into recipes instead, emulsifiers and gums were required to emulate cream and stabilize these concoctions. Eggs are also a natural emulsifier, and thus baked goods didn’t need chemical emulsifiers, though some baked goods now use them as well. Sadly, based on the study, it appears these low-fat products may be partially responsible for an increase in obesity due to their disruptions to the gut microbiota.

Here’s an example ingredient list from one of the ice creams we ate:
milk, sugar, cream, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, skim milk, whey, buttermilk, coconut oil, pecans, butter, water, modified cornstarch, alkalized cocoa, mono and diglycerides, natural flavors, cellulose gum, palm kernel oil, salt, soy lecithin, hydrogenated palm oil, artificial flavors, sodium citrate, sodium bicarbonate, guar gum, polysorbate 80, annatto (color), carrageenan.

This list contains many water and oil ingredients, along with multiple emulsifiers and gums. Polysorbate-80 was one of the two emulsifiers studied, carboxymethylcellulose being the second, that were proven to disrupt the gut microbiota even with low quantities consumed. Research will hopefully continue to determine which other emulsifiers are a problem. The above ingredient list includes two additional emulsifiers. Soy Lecithin is commonly used in chocolates. Mono and diglycerides are one of the oldest emulsifiers that has been added to processed food recipes.

The problem with such emulsifiers is they emulsify the inner lining of your gut, destroying the mucus lining where much of your gut bacteria thrive. This would also explain a cause of Leaky-Gut-Syndrome, in which consumed food and bacteria by-pass the protective mucus lining, triggering autoimmune reactions. People have been making wild guesses about what causes this syndrome for a while now, and I was wondering if it was possibly all foolishness, but here’s scientific research that describes that process.

We humans generally have a kill-them-all attitude about bacteria. When it comes to your gut, you need bacteria colonies doing their job. Good bacteria colonies help keep you safe by helping kill off bad bacteria. Bacteria generate certain vitamins. They help digest food. We have a symbiotic relationship, and destroying your gut microbiota by eroding the mucus structures that bacteria live on is not doing us any favors.

Alas, I’ve cut way back on store bought ice cream again.

Here’s a fresh-made ice creamy dessert we often eat instead. This makes a lower calorie, delicious, healthy, no emulsifier or other weird chemicals needed, ice cream dessert. (I always measure by eye and just toss ingredients into the blender, but these should be about the right measurements.)

(Big serving for one, so multiply as needed)

1.5 Cup Frozen Strawberries (Or Other fruit, like frozen mango.)
1/3 cup milk (Cow or non-dairy)
1 tsp sugar, if needed (or other sweetener as desired)

Toss in a blender that has a tamper. Blend, tamping the frozen fruit down, until smooth and creamy. It’s ready to eat. Optionally stir in chunky ingredients, like chocolate or nuts. Scoop into a bowl. Optionally add toppings, like whipping cream or sprinkles. Eat it up, yum!

If you want to experiment, place cut up fruit into ice cube trays and fill the remaining space with a mildly sweetened milk. Blend these frozen cubes, using a bit of milk if needed to get them started. One combination I like is pineapple and banana with coconut milk and a touch of coconut sugar for a piña colada flavor. Another is a cooked butternut squash with milk and maple syrup. Chocolate milk and banana is pretty good.

You can leave out the fruit, but the fruit makes it creamy without needing heavy cream (or emulsifiers and gums). If you just use milk and flavor (like chocolate or vanilla) it tends to be watery and melt quickly unless you use heavy cream.

When shopping for store bought ice cream, I’d suggest looking for brands that don’t use emulsifiers and gums, but stick with the original ice cream ingredients of milk, cream, sugar and flavor ingredients.

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