Diabetes and obesity linked to popular processed food ingredient.
More reasons to increase the proportion of real food in our diets. Recent research led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests consumption of propionate, a food ingredient that’s widely used in baked goods, animal feeds, and artificial flavourings, appears to increase levels of several hormones that are associated with risk of obesity and diabetes.
The study indicated that propionate can trigger a cascade of metabolic events that leads to insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia—a condition marked by excessive levels of insulin. The findings also showed that in mice, chronic exposure to propionate resulted in weight gain and insulin resistance.
Once again, this research suggests how little we really understand the health impact from ingredients in processed food affect the body’s metabolism at the molecular and cellular level, not least when it comes to obesity and diabetes.
More than 400 million people worldwide suffer from diabetes, with the rate of diabetes incidence projected to increase 40% by 2040 despite extensive efforts to curb the disease. The surging rates of diabetes, as well as obesity, in the last 50 years indicate that environmental and dietary factors must be influential, yet many dietary components including ingredients used for preparation or preservation of processed foods have yet to subject to research evaluating the molecules.
For this study, the researchers focused on propionate, a naturally occurring short-chain fatty acid that helps prevents mould from forming on foods. They first administered this short chain fatty acid to mice and found that it rapidly activated the sympathetic nervous system, which led to a surge in hormones, including glucagon, norepinephrine, and a newly discovered gluconeogenic hormone called fatty acid-binding protein 4 (FABP4). This in turn led the mice to produce more glucose from their liver cells, leading to hyperglycemia—a defining trait of diabetes. Moreover, the researchers found that chronic treatment of mice with a dose of propionate that was equivalent to the amount typically consumed by humans led to significant weight gain in the mice, as well as insulin resistance.
Translating the tests to people, the researchers found that those who consumed meals containing propionate had significant increases in norepinephrine as well as increases in glucagon and FABP4 soon after eating the meal. The findings indicate that propionate may act as a “metabolic disruptor” that potentially increases the risk for diabetes and obesity in humans.
We are exposed to hundreds of chemicals in processed foods on a daily basis, and yet most have not been tested in detail for their potential long-term metabolic effects. Good reason to ensure as high a proportion of our diets remains real food.
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