Study Finds Emulsifiers Increase Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

This discovery is part of a much broader health risk associated with the consumption of ultra-processed foods, explained an expert from the Montreal Clinical Research Institute.

“It’s not just diabetes,” said Dr. Rémi Rabasa-Lhoret. “There are things around ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular diseases, or around ultra-processed foods and obesity, or even ultra-processed foods and cancer.

“In my opinion, this points to one of the components of this large soup of ultra-processed foods.”

French researchers analyzed data from about 105,000 participants in the NutriNet-Santé study. They asked their subjects to answer – every six months, for a maximum follow-up of 14 years – food questionnaires specifically about their consumption of these additives.

During the follow-up period, a little over a thousand cases of type 2 diabetes occurred. The researchers took into account well-known risk factors for this disease in their analysis, such as weight, family history, sedentary lifestyle, and smoking.

They found an association between the consumption of emulsifiers such as carrageenans, tripotassium phosphate, acetylated tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, sodium citrate, guar gum, arabic gum, and xanthan gum, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

This increase ranged from 3% to 15%, depending on the type of emulsifier and the amount consumed.

Emulsifiers could potentially alter the intestinal microbiota of consumers, said Dr. Rabasa-Lhoret. Studies linking the intestinal microbiota to various aspects of human health have multiplied in recent years, and this could also be the case this time.

“It seems that when we eat ‘fast food’, when we have a poor-quality diet, all these bacteria seem to have negative effects,” he emphasized.

The situation can be particularly challenging in what are called “food deserts,” he added, where residents have limited access to quality foods.

If the only store within a reasonable walking distance is a convenience store that offers chips, liquor, and cookies, “all of that adds up, it combines, and it creates a somewhat toxic cocktail,” said Dr. Rabasa-Lhoret.

“But if we had to convey a message to the population, it would be that ultra-processed elements should not be demonized, but certainly should not be consumed daily either,” he stressed.

Emulsifiers are used to help mix two substances that would normally separate when combined, the best example being water and oil. They are added to processed or even ultra-processed foods to improve appearance, taste, texture, or shelf life.

Ultra-processed foods provide half of our daily caloric intake, according to the Heart & Stroke Foundation. These include soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candies, ice cream, sugary breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, fries, and more.

The findings of this study were published online by the medical journal The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology.