Problems with emulsifiers?

Dr Paul Clayton’s Health Newsletter Spring 2015

A new paper in Nature (Chassaing et al ’15) has shown that when mice consume high doses of the emulsifiers commonly used in processed foods, they develop changes in their microbiome and go on to develop gut inflammation, metabolic syndrome, and weight gain. At first sight this seems alarming, as emulsifiers are used in almost all processed foods; and diets rich in processed foods are very closely linked to all the above problems.

The link to human disease is not at all proven, however, as the mice were given doses of the emulsifiers many times higher than would occur in any normal diet. Nevertheless, the mechanism whereby emulsifiers caused the problems is interesting, and does hint that eating too much emulsifier could be an aggravating factor in various pathologies.

The researchers found that eating emulsifiers led to increased numbers of gram-negative bacteria in the mouse gut. As these bacteria produce highly pro-inflammatory compounds called lipopolysaccharides, the tendency of the mice to go on to develop gut inflammation and metabolic syndrome was quite logical.

And here is where the mice come closer to men … because the modern diet rich in processed foods is low in fibre, which also causes a shift towards the pro-inflammatory gram-negative bacteria. As such a diet is also generally dense in calories and depleted in anti-inflammatory micronutrients, it is no wonder that modern humans are so prone to gut inflammation, metabolic syndrome, overweight, diabetes and degenerative disease in general.

Professor Tom Sanders, the no-nonsense head of Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences at London’s King’s College, dismissed the emulsifier research out of hand as being based on unrealistic dosages. I am not so sure, and believe that in persons whose health and microbiome is already compromised by eating a Western diet, emulsifiers may well constitute an additional aggravating factor.

But I agree with Tom that one should concentrate on reducing calories and sugars, and switch to a pro-vegetarian diet or better, before focusing on specific food additives.


Chassaing B, Koren O, Goodrich JK, Poole AC, Srinivasan S, Ley RE, Gewirtz AT. Dietary emulsifiers impact the mouse gut microbiota promoting colitis and metabolic syndrome. Nature. 2015 Mar 5;519(7541):92-6.