If you cook at home with whole ingredients, you have a much better sense of what’s in your food than if you order takeout from the fast-food restaurant on the corner or buy a packaged snack at the convenience store down the block. Though scientists are still learning how the chemicals in these foods impact your health, it’s becoming clear that some of them can do some real harm.
Now, new research suggests that an additive called carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), which acts as an emulsifier, can impact an otherwise healthy microbiome for the worse. These effects could contribute to unhealthy levels of gut inflammation and other dangerous health outcomes.
In the study, which was accepted into the journal Gastroenterology, the official medical journal of the American Gastroenterological Association, researchers examined 16 healthy adults, nine of whom ate an emulsifier-free diet and seven of whom ate 15 grams of CMC each day. Those who ate the additive were more likely to feel discomfort in their abdomen after meals and endure negative changes to their gut microbiota.
“I think the main message of our work on CMC and other synthetic emulsifiers (such as polysorbate 80) is that they may promote chronic inflammatory diseases. Therefore, more extensive human studies are needed,” study co-author Andrew Gerwitz, PhD, told Eat This, Not That! in an interview. “Meanwhile, I suggest those concerned about their health minimize consumption of highly processed foods, especially those containing CMC and polysorbate 80.”
Gerwitz believes eating foods that contain these additives “once in a while” is unlikely to do any major damage. So while it’s helpful to cut back, you don’t necessarily need to shut your favorite processed foods out of your life completely.
According to James N. BeMiller’s Carbohydrate Chemistry for Food Scientists (Third Edition), excerpted in ScienceDirect, CMC can most commonly be found in ice cream and other frozen desserts. It also appears in baked goods, cheese spreads, dressings, hot chocolate mixes, sauces, syrups, and yogurts, among other foods.
It’s worth noting that the Gastroenterology study only looked at 16 adults, and this research is still in its early days. It’s too soon to say with any certainty exactly how this emulsifier will affect your gut health. Thus, you probably don’t want to immediately cut out foods like yogurt that are otherwise a healthy and nourishing part of your diet.