New report suggests link between emulsifiers and diabetes
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New report suggests link between emulsifiers and diabetes

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SOCIAL & LIFESTYLE
New report suggests link between emulsifiers and diabetes
(Photo: Charungsak P. Praphan)

DEAR DOCTORS: I just read there's a connection between diabetes and some of the additives in commercial snack cakes and other products. I always thought it was the added sugars that are a problem, but this appears to be something else. Do you know what that is?

DEAR READER: You're referring to the findings of a recent study that suggests there may be a link between the consumption of emulsifiers, a widely used class of food additives, to an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

The metabolic disorder, in which insulin resistance causes chronically high levels of blood glucose, has reached epidemic proportions in the US. It is estimated that more than 11% of the population -- that's 38.5 million people -- are living with Type 2 diabetes. The condition puts them at increased risk of a wide range of health threats, including damage to the eyes, nerves and kidneys. It also leads to a reduced life expectancy. It's not surprising, then, that the results of this study have been making headlines.

If you've read the ingredient lists on food labels, chances are you've come across the word emulsifiers. They are molecules whose chemical composition allows them to unite substances, such as oil and water, that would normally not remain bound together. Emulsifiers are found in a wide range of prepared foods. This includes ice cream, mayonnaise, puddings, creamy sauces, nut butters, syrups, bread, pastries, cakes, chocolate and other forms of sweets and candy, and also processed meats.

Some commercial emulsifiers are refined from plant or animal products, such as eggs, peanuts, soybeans, liver, wheat germ and pectin. Others are created from lab chemicals. All of them are used to give foods a smooth and creamy texture, and also to help extend shelf life.

The study your question refers to was published in the Lancet group's journal Diabetes & Endocrinology. It used health and lifestyle data collected from 104,000 adults between 2009 and 2024. Analysis found that participants with the highest exposure to emulsifiers in commercial food products were up to 15% more likely to have Type 2 diabetes. Some of the specific compounds cited in the study include carrageenans, tripotassium phosphate and guar gum. Previous research has also linked emulsifiers to potential health problems. These include an increased risk of hypertension, metabolic disorders, poor weight control and cardiovascular disease. Although the reasons for these adverse effects on health are not yet fully understood, emulsifiers are believed to disrupt the gut microbiome and to contribute to inflammation.

While the findings are certainly intriguing, it's important to note that this is an observational study. This type of research can suggest a reason for an outcome, but it does not prove it. The researchers have said that their next step is a series of animal studies, which will use control groups for a more rigorous look at the potential effects of emulsifiers on metabolism. At the very least, this research adds weight to the cautions against eating too much processed food. Stick to fresh, whole foods, and you'll eliminate emulsifiers from your diet. Universal Features Syndicate


Dr Eve Glazier is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Dr Elizabeth Ko is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.

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