New Study Links Emulsifiers With Increased Type 2 Diabetes Risk

New Study Links Emulsifiers With Increased Type 2 Diabetes Risk

Oil and water famously don’t mix—at least without the help of an emulsifier. Emulsifiers allow ingredients that typically separate to combine, and you can find them included in all sorts of packaged foods, from bread to cake to salad dressings.

Yet some research suggests that they may be harmful to health. The latest study, published recently in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, links emulsifiers with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. This chronic condition occurs when your body can’t properly use insulin, causing blood sugar to rise.

“Our results represent key elements to enrich the debate on re-evaluating the regulations around the use of additives in the food industry in order to better protect consumers,” the authors said in a statement.

Here’s what you need to know about the link between emulsifiers and type 2 diabetes, as well as whether you should avoid emulsifiers in light of the new research.

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Emulsifiers are compounds added to food products to boost their appeal. They prevent ingredients from separating, thicken foods, extend a product’s shelf life, and enhance overall texture and consistency. For example, an emulsifier helps make chocolate velvety smooth and prevents ice crystals from forming in ice cream.

Over 100 emulsifiers can be added to foods. Some are synthetic, while others are derived from plant and animal sources. Lecithin, for example, is found in egg yolks and soybeans and is used to stabilize baked goods, dressings, and chocolate.

As with all food additives, the Food and Drug Administration assesses emulsifiers for safety. The agency has determined that commonly used emulsifiers are generally regarded as safe, also known as GRAS.

However, like many categories of food additives, emulsifiers are not without controversy.

Researchers have linked some of them with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease and, according to Dr. Matthew Kulka, DO, a Pennsylvania-based board-certified family medicine physician, with a possible disruption to “the normal balance of bacteria that typically live in the gut.”

“This disruption of balance may lead to insulin resistance or the way the body naturally metabolizes and stores glucose,” he said, “thus increasing the risk of diabetes and other inflammatory processes.”

It’s against this backdrop that researchers set out to test whether emulsifier consumption is associated with a heightened chance of developing type 2 diabetes.

The team examined 104,000 adults enrolled in the French NutriNet-Santé Study, an ongoing examination of nutrition and health status.

Between May 1, 2009, and April 26, 2023, researchers gathered records about diet and emulsifier exposure from participants every six months for an average of nearly seven years. During that time, 1,056 participants were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and scientists found that those people had more exposure to certain emulsifiers.

The results suggested a link between an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and exposure to the following emulsifiers: 

  • Total carrageenans: Extracted from red seaweed and commonly found in deli meats, cottage cheese, and ice cream
  • Carrageenan gum: Also derived from red seaweed and commonly used to thicken baked goods
  • Tripotassium phosphate: A food additive containing sodium and inorganic phosphate that’s often found in cereals, cheeses, soda, and baked goods
  • Monoglycerides and diglycerides: Derived from fatty acids and used in bakery products, margarine, and ice creams to extend shelf life and enhance texture
  • Sodium citrate: A salt that facilitates the melting of certain cheeses
  • Guar gum: Derived from the seed of the guar plant and helps to thicken and stabilize soups, stews, ice cream, yogurt, and marinades
  • Gum arabic: Extracted from the hardened sap of acacia trees and is used to stabilize soft drinks, gummy candies, and chewing gum
  • Xanthan gum: Made by fermenting sugar with a type of bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris, xanthan gum is found in foods like bakery products, salad dressing, syrup, soups and ice cream

Kulka said that there’s a “notable” link between heightened consumption of emulsifiers in food and the risk of developing diabetes, but that additional studies are necessary. “The recent French study was observational, which hints at a potential correlation, though to determine if emulsifiers truly pose a risk of diabetes, further investigational studies with rigorous controls are needed,” he said.

While there isn’t enough research to know for sure whether limiting or eliminating emulsifiers from your diet would reduce your diabetes risk, Will Bulsiewicz, MD, a gastroenterologist and US Medical Director of ZOE, told Health that he recommends it.

“There is preclinical, animal model, and human research to support the negative effects of emulsifiers on our gut microbiota and the potential for inducing insulin resistance,” he said. “While further research is certainly warranted, it would seem prudent to limit emulsifier intake when possible.”

Because many foods that include emulsifiers are ultra-processed products such as packaged bread, cakes, ice cream, and ready-to-eat meals, Bulsiewicz said the quickest and easiest way to cut out emulsifiers “is to reduce your ultra-processed food intake and replace it with whole foods, preferably fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and pulses.”

A diet high in ultra-processed foods has generally been linked with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and other health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, so limiting overly processed foods may have benefits independent of their connection to emulsifiers.

Aside from diet, other ways to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes include getting regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol intake, and having regular health check-ups to monitor blood sugar levels.

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