Sugar loving superbugs


The importance of taking care of the ‘friendly’ bacteria in our guts has featured regularly in our articles. Probiotics: trust your gut for better health, is a good example, while guest writer Shakur Abdullah, Co-Founder and Director of MicroInventa, a specialist in the human gut microbiome, wrote the excellent How microbes can save lives.

As Shakur pointed out, research has shown that our diet can change the diversity of our microbes. Our gut diversity is decreasing, with the western diet, known for high levels of fat and refined sugars, but low in fibre, a major contributor to our decreased microbial diversity. Studies have also found that a poor diet not only reduces diversity, but the changes can become permanent after 4 generations. Bearing in mind the decrease in gut bacteria due to antibiotics either directly, or through our food via livestock, we face one of the swiftest losses of gut diversity in human history.

Yet as if this wasn’t bad enough an article recently published in the New York Times by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, The Germs That Love Diet Soda, sheds an even more disturbing light on the health risks associated with eating too much processed food.

This piece focuses on some of the potential unintended side effects on our microbiomes of additives that extend the shelf life and improve the texture of these processed foods. The fear is some of the substances may actually feed ‘unfriendly’ bacteria, causing illness and even death. The rise in cases of clostridium difficile, or C. diff, a potentially deadly infection of the gut is a case in point. C.diff can cause severe inflammation of the colon. Microbiologist’s researching why the more virulent strains were thriving in our guts found these nasty little guys were getting better fed than others, with two of the most problematic C. diff strains possessing a unique ability to utilize a sugar called trehalose. The results of the investigation were published in the journal Nature, and the implications are extraordinary.

What is Trehalose?

Trehalose is a sugar consisting of two molecules of glucose. It occurs in small amounts naturally in foods such as mushrooms, yeast, honey and shellfish, among other things. It is now found industrially in foods such as nutrition bars, chewing gum, dried foods, frozen foods, jams, fruit fillings, instant noodles and rice, white chocolate and fruit juices, amongst others. Historically expensive to use, in the late 1990s a new manufacturing process made the sugar cheap. As it helps stabilizing processed foods, keeping them moist on the shelf and improving texture, since the early 2000’s it’s been widely used in the US.

The researchers contend that this has inadvertently helped cultivate the most toxic C. diff strains, driving what has become a scourge of hospitals. The timing of recent C. diff epidemics is put forward as evidence: virulent strains existed before 2000, but they didn’t cause as many outbreaks. Only after large quantities of trehalose entered the food supply did they become so widespread and deadly.

It’s important to note that while the findings are correlated, causation has not been proved. However, the research adds to a growing body of evidence indicating that common food additives can push our microbial communities in unhealthy directions. In simple terms, they help ‘unfriendly’ bacteria push out the ‘friendly’ bacteria, encouraging diseases like obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. By potentially aiding the emergence of new pathogens, we are entering much more disturbing territory. The New York Times article goes on to warn of the potential microbiome dangers associated with artificial sweeteners like sucralose and saccharin, found in diet sodas and “sugar-free” snacks, which it seems the microbes inhabiting our colons can metabolize, again potentially to our detriment.

What to do?

While the microbiologists continue their investigations, there are some easy steps we can take to help our friendly bacteria – and cut the support for the unfriendly varieties. Foremost, of course, is becoming more mindful about what we eat and drink.

  • Cut down on fizzy drinks (or avoid them altogether) whether they are diet or full sugar.
  • Reduce the proportion of highly processed foods in our diets; this will create the space for including more real food.
  • Eat more fruit, vegetables, legumes and nuts to help provide fibre and nourishment for our ‘friendly’ bacteria.

As the food industry adopts new food additives to the processed food supply it could further influence our microbiome in ways that we can’t immediately determine – for better or for worse.

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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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