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March 8, 2022

The Sneaky Reason we’re Gaining Weight & Getting Sicker: Food Emulsifiers.

It happened, again, didn’t it?

2022 began with hope, inspiration, and fierce motivation. This year, it was going to be different.

This year, that hackneyed resolution of losing the weight or cutting the bloat by prioritizing your health and fitness was going to stick. Not like the yuppy trends of January’s past. This year, you knew what you had to do differently to turn those habits into lifestyle and into results. 

But that’s not what happened.

Even if you’re still at it, presently. You’re even working with a nutritionist, a personal trainer, and a transformational coach…and your support system is bulletproof and to the max. But you’re not really feeling or seeing the difference you’d expect with that intense commitment and dedication. So, you’re beginning to question yourself, and you watch what you thought was a glass ceiling undergo reconstruction to resemble the kind of feet-thick, clear, plastic material that contains the powerful yet helpless victims of “Blackfish.”

Well, first off, I hope your new year is off to a great start, and your hard work and dedication are shifting those other goals you set into the positive. Don’t let that ferocity fizzle out just yet.

And second, there’s something you need to know before you fire your support team or begin to reframe your goals (especially if you have a desire for improved health and weight maintenance).

The skinny:

Before I go any further, I need to prepare you for the weight of this information, because I’m ready to drop some major wisdom to help you clean up your diet and tackle an underlying cause of chronic illness and inflammation.

This information is brought to you by science and patterns in clinical observation. However, this information is meant to educate only and not to diagnose or prescribe. As always, you assume (or at least you should) all responsibility for your health and are encouraged to check in with and be followed by a primary care physician prior to beginning a treatment regimen of your choosing.

The pattern:

Now, when I talk to patients about what “eating healthy” looks like, I can confidently say that over at least a decade of having this conversation, I’ve never had one patient tell me that they are working to eliminate food additives. Even when we think we are consciously eating healthy, we are still unconscious of what has no business passing through our body. Products that are not meant to be consumed are disguised as consumables, and our first line of defense (our brain, because we should first know what we are putting into our mouths) is bypassed—and the task of discerning and defending is left to our immune system, the majority of which is heavily involved in the lining of our gut.

I just want you to think about that for a moment and begin to make a connection between your gut, your immune system, and where this population-wide surge of chronic illness and autoimmune conditions are coming from.

It seems a little unfair, especially if this is new information and you didn’t realize that ingredients not meant for consumption are being concealed in your food.

If that’s a lot to swallow and process, let’s start small and bite off a little piece of the food additive dilemma.

The breadcrumbs:

Oftentimes, when there’s a dilemma and you want to get down to the bottom of it, I invite you to follow the money. In regard to this narrow scope of information being shared presently, the money leads to food emulsifiers.

Depending on your background, many of you might be wondering exactly what those are.

Food facts:

The first thing you need to know is that in terms of your food, emulsifiers are the most widely used food additives, globally constituting a 45.7 billion dollar industry in 2020. The industry is projected to weigh in at an obese 59 billion dollars by 2026. Popular emulsifiers you may find on a food ingredient label include carboxymethyl cellulose, polysorbate-80, or lecithin. We’ve all seen those somewhere, right? Probably in that small font under the nutrition label?

To complicate things more, these food chemistry additives are often listed under different names. Carboxymethyl cellulose might read on a label as CMC, methylcellulose, carmellose, E466, cellulose gum, etc. This makes it even more difficult for you, the consumer, who is trying to understand what ingredients are actually in your food. The solution is quite simple, but before we get there, let’s talk about why this topic is not only important, but earth shattering for the majority of us.

What are emulsifiers?

Let’s stick with the example of carboxymethyl cellulose, or CMC. CMC is one of many additives that functions as an emulsifier, a stabilizer, and a thickener. This affects food texture, consistency, and “mouthfeel,” which are qualities that make foods desirable to consumers. The food industry knows and values this information.

Emulsifiers take oily or watery substances (which by nature, due to chemistry and polarization, do not stick together) and help to bind, blend, and stabilize them within a suspension. Products like CMC actually cut the need for ingredients like oil or flour, which are increasing in price every day. Think of food items like milk, yogurt, ice cream, tortillas, frozen doughs, or baked and boxed goods.

If you’ve ever made gluten-free baked goods, then you know that consistency issues are real…unless the ingredient list includes an emulsifier. Gluten (while this spotlight is not directly about gluten) is a large molecule that functions like glue. Get it—glue-ten? Regular baked goods don’t tend to be as crumbly or fall apart as much as gluten-free baked goods, the kind you might try to bake from scratch without guar gum powders or non whole food emulsifiers. Well, CMC is popularly used in gluten-free baking to provide breads with volume and dough with viscosity in place of the gluten proteins which would normally do this in items that contain wheat, barley, or rye.

Moreover, additives like CMC allow dairy products like ice cream to be produced quickly, at low cost, and in large quantities, eliminating the need to churn. This is why it’s not surprising that CMC is a significant player in commercial ice creams such as Dairy Queen. In 2019, their slogan was “Happy Tastes Good” but I have to laugh, because I don’t think you’d be happy to know where emulsifiers like CMC come from.

But I’m so glad you asked…

It gets sticky:

Cellulose gum happens when cellulose originating from cotton linter, or more commonly, wood pulp, undergoes a chemical modification using chloroacetic acid. Normally, cellulose is not soluble in water, but this modification allows the cellulose chains to open up and allow water to enter. This allows CMC to act as a suspending agent, a stabilizer, and a thickening agent.

Jansen first discovered this convenient modification of nonfood items into food items as a substitute for naturally occurring gums around the time of World War 1. Commercialization of the use of CMC occurred in the late 1940s. In the early 1970s, CMC, which was already being used commercially, was re-assessed to be “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) by the FDA. At the time, the understanding was that carboxymethylcellulose passed through the human body undigested and unabsorbed without toxic effects.

To testify against this statement, let’s take a look at zebrafish.

Why trust a fish who looks like a zebra?

Recent studies (in PubMed, Nature.com, the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and others) have been published across peer-reviewed journals that question the assumed safety of many food additives.

Of note, carboxymethylcellulose, along with carrageenan, have made the list. That FDA GRAS-status signifying toxicity levels has been re-evaluated with the advent of new modeling and molecular-based data.

Zebrafish embryos seem to be on-trend in the scientific animal model community. CMC was injected into the yolk sac (which functions as the food source) for baby zebrafish, within four hours of fertilization at different concentrations. This particular study found that the FDA was partially right—CMC was not overtly toxic. Phew, right? But wait…

The more the dose increased, the more the embryos accumulated lipids, meaning genes related to obesity-linked lipid metabolism were modified. And the scientists had themselves some fat fish, to put it simply.

No excuses:

Think about it: You diet. You exercise. You fast. But you just can’t lose the weight. Maybe you’ve been told you have a metabolic disorder. Your cardiologist might tell you some of it has to do with your genes.

But did you know that certain foods and lifestyle exposures can actually turn on and off your genes? Did you really think you were given a road map with no ability to navigate it yourself?

This is one of the reasons I tell my patients not to resign to their genes. That’s just something outdated or burned out physicians use as an excuse. (I say this with compassion because there is no way to know everything, and physician burnout is real, rampant, and needs to be addressed.) And this, in turn, allows their patients to use it as an excuse. No excuses, here, people. It’s called epigenetics, and while, yes a lot of the script is predesigned, you do have access to the “edit” feature.

For the kids:

Scientists have observed that additives like carrageenan and CMC are widely used and consumed by the pediatric population in the Western diet. Similarly, they couldn’t help but notice the increase in irritable bowel disease, obesity, and other chronic issues in the same population.

This caused them to question the safety of additives, especially in the amounts that they’re being consumed—which is the theme of our talk today.

They designed animal studies that consistently demonstrated that both of these food additive ingredients, both carrageenan and CMC, induced changes in cellular and tissue structure which are typical of irritable bowel disease.

The results didn’t stop there. The researchers also observed a disruption in the intestinal epithelial barrier—that’s that protective lining of the gut where we have what are called “tight junctions,” which act as bouncers in a nightclub deciding who is safe to let in and who doesn’t belong in our systemic circulation. And this caused a disruption of inhibiting proteins, whose job it is to provide protection against microorganisms and to work with the immune system, along with lymphocytes, in the local tissue of the digestive tract.

Finally, all of these, what I call “environmental changes” in the biology of the digestive tract, were compounded by what I also call an “ecological change”—a change in the microbiome—which has been proven to cause an abundance of pro-inflammatory cytokines, or inflammation starting compounds that your body makes when it needs to fight an invader.

You can basically think of the scene in your GI tract as a microscopic riot, which disrupts the balance of good to bad bacteria and causes a domino effect, a cascade of negative immune-activating, metabolism-altering events.

Now, the knowledge that these food additives affect your microbiome is not a little or microscopic piece of information. The implications are big.

One of the things I do in my health and nutritional therapy practice is guest lecture on the gut-brain-microbiome axis. My goal is to help individuals develop a relationship with their microbiome to improve gut health, immunity, processing functions, emotions, metabolism, and endocrine function. We need to begin to look at our microbiome as our best friends or our personal pets. Like little Tamagotchi pets, we have to constantly check on them and ensure they’re getting the support and attention they need. I want you to understand that food that funks and gunks up your good bacteria is a lot more problematic than just giving you a bellyache.

A group message:

Ever since the Human Genome Project in the early 2000s, the biologic spotlight has been stolen by the growing understanding of the role and functions of the microbiome, the microbial environment of the human ecosystem. The microbiome isn’t just a matter of bacterial colonies that live on and in the body. They regulate inflammation, brain function, human behavior, epigenetics, and more.

With the rise of IBS, IBD, Crohn’s, Colitis, SIBO, and leaky gut syndrome, in relation to exponential increases in autoimmune disorders that affect other systems of the body, scientists aim to work backward to understand the causes, which are considered multifactorial. It’s been increasingly clear in recent years that the food additive industry has proven to be one of those big, fat causes.

So, if you’re struggling with chronic inflammation, or you’re dealing with a metabolic disorder, high blood pressure, cholesterol, or endocrine imbalance like diabetes, or you’re just wanting to lose some additional weight or maintain a healthy balance, take this wisdom about these little known food additives called “emulsifiers,” which are often derived from non-food products, and screen for them on your next grocery store trip like you’d screen for those phony car warranty robocalls that come at the most inconvenient time.

You’ll begin to see results. And start a process of lifting stones you didn’t even know existed. Before you know it, that mountain of a goal will open up to a new horizon of health and self-awareness.

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