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Good gut health is tied to a healthy brain, heart and a strong immune system. So what happens when chemicals in our food harm our gut?

A new study published in the journal Gastroenterology found synthetic additives in highly processed food can have “detrimental impacts” on our gut and cause an “array of chronic inflammatory diseases.”

Exposure to food additives has increased dramatically with the rise in ultra-processed food. Synthetic additives and emulsifiers are used in highly processed food to enhance texture and extend shelf life.

To measure the impact of food additives on gut health, scientists conducted a randomized controlled-feeding study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Human Phenomic Science.

The study examined what happens when healthy people eat carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), a thickening agent used in processed food, including food labeled gluten-free.

Some emulsifiers commonly added to food (such as lecithin) are a natural component of unprocessed foods, the study’s authors said, while others such as CMC are synthetic.

Scientists analyzed 16 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 60, some of whom consumed only emulsifier-free diets and others who consumed an identical diet enriched with 15 grams per day of CMC for 11 days.

The study participants ate the same western-style diet, with the only difference being portion size.

The research showed that eating CMC increased gut inflammation and pain or discomfort after eating, and resulted in less diverse gut flora — a “hallmark of various disease states,” said the study authors.

The study’s authors wrote:

“These results support the notion that the broad use of CMC in processed foods may be contributing to increased prevalence of an array of chronic inflammatory diseases by altering the gut microbiome and metabolome.”

The research expands on mounting evidence linking highly processed food to inflammatory diseases including inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of ailments that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Both IBS and metabolic syndrome stem from alterations in gut flora, according to the authors of the study.

Altering the bacteria in our gut can have serious consequences to our health, including affecting our ability to ward off infectious diseases and cancer. So why are chemical additives like CMC, with known health effects, being added to our food?

According to the study, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the 1960s approved — without proper safety testing — CMC and some other emulsifiers for use in food, partly because the body doesn’t absorb the chemical well, instead mostly excreting it.

But that doesn’t prevent the additive from interfering with our gut flora, the authors said:

“Such passage through the intestine allows these products to directly interact with gut microbiota and the intestinal mucosa. For example, CMC has been shown to impact gut transit time and alter fecal bile acid profiles.

“More recent studies show that CMC impacts human microbiota composition and gene expression in vitro, and in mice, wherein its impacts on gut microbiota promote the development of colitis or metabolic syndrome.”

More studies are needed to better understand the health effects of additives in processed food, the study’s authors said. While an individual’s response to CMC may be personalized, the findings in this study indicate certain food additives can disrupt gut flora to the point of causing disease.