By now most of us are aware of the human microbiome – a very complex and dynamic ecosystem of microbes found primarily within the GI tract, but also throughout many other mucosal membranes and tissues of our bodies. The beneficial bacteria that resides in our digestive tract perform a number of different functions that support nutrient production, a balanced immune system, healthy digestive function, and proper neurotransmitter function.
What happens when our microbiome isn’t nourished properly?
Dysbiosis, which is the imbalance between good and bad bacteria in the gut, can lead to a vast array of issues involving digestive function, chronic pain and inflammation, autoimmune diseases, and even mood disorders. Many of our patients report the amazing benefits of probiotics and fermented foods in improving their health in all of these areas, but it’s also important to avoid consuming foods and ingredients that are harming our fragile microbes.
Food Additives to look out for:
It’s critical to read food labels to avoid ingredients that may be directly impacting your microbiome. Also be aware that many of these food additives are used in ingredients in restaurants so it’s important to be cautious and ask your server questions when dining out.
Trehalose (hidden in some foods as “natural flavor”)
Despite that it has been around a while, trehalose is a commonly used food ingredient that most people haven’t heard of. It’s a sugar typically derived from GMO-corn that is used as a stabilizing agent that helps preserve moisture in food. It’s found frequently in a wide variety of packaged foods, processed meats, and sauces and dressings. Trehelose is rarely listed on the on foods labels and is usually hidden as a “natural flavor.” So what makes trehalose a problem? Researchers are discovering that it feeds particularly virulent strains of a bacterium called Clostridium difficule (C-diff), allowing it to proliferate in the human gut causing digestive issues and sometimes even resulting in death. C-diff is responsible for over 15,000 deaths each year, especially among the elderly.
Maltodextrin is a highly processed thickening agent usually derived from corn, rice, wheat, or potato starch and is found in many processed foods like cereals, snacks, and desserts, and sauces, yogurts, and salad dressings. In this study researchers discovered that maltodextrin not only thins the mucosal barrier in the digestive tract but it might also be a preferential food source for a particularly harmful strain of E. coli that is associated with Chron’s disease, an autoimmune inflammatory bowel disease.
Emulsifiers (Polysorbate 80 and carboxymethycellulose)
Emulsifying agents are used in foods to help water-soluble and fat-containing compounds blend well together, such as in mayonnaise and ice cream. Microbiologists from George State University have discovered that these emulsifiers can lead to breakdown in the mucus barrier in in the digestive tracts of mice. Additionally, they found that these emulsifying agents may cause a rise in bacteria in the gut that produce inflammatory proteins making the mice more prone to obesity and diabetes.
Artificial Sweeteners (Sucralose, Saccarin, etc.)
Frequently found in diet sodas and “sugar-free” foods, there has been a lot of research that revealed the many harmful affects of artificial sweetners, but the investigation of its effects on the microbiome are just starting to come to light. In a study by Israelian researchers they discovered that saccharin likely causes glucose intolerance by inducing changes in the microbiome itself, rather than disrupting metabolic pathways.
This ever-expanding field of research continues to shed light on the harmful compounds in foods and reminds us that we must be more cautious than ever about reading food labels and knowing what “fake food” ingredients we are ingesting. Eating “Real foods” and minimizing consumption of processed foods is one of the best ways to ensure you are protecting and nourishing your microbiome for you own health and vitality.
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About the Author
Sara Keough, MS, CNS, LDN is a licensed nutritionist in the state of Maryland and is a certified nutrition specialist with the national Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists.