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Food additives are a mainstay of most diets today. New research shows how a commonly used anti-mold agent alters sugar metabolism and drives insulin resistance in mice and men. Obesity and type 2 diabetes have reached epidemic levels, with nearly 40 percent of adults in the United States classed as obese and, as of 2015, 9.4 percent living with diabetes.
Eating a diet which is high in processed foods, sugar, and fat, is a known risk factor for obesity and type 2 diabetes. Avoiding processed foods is actually not that easy. Preservatives, which keep our food fresh for longer, lurk in many places. One such chemical is the anti-mold agent propionate, a short-chain fatty acid that the bacteria in our gut produce naturally.
As a preservative, its other name is E282, and it features as a common food additive in bread and other baked goods. According to the Codex Alimentarius, the international food standards guide by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, propionate may be added to a host of other things, including breakfast cereals, dairy and egg-based deserts, sausage casings, processed cheese, and sports drinks.
Researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston, MA, along with colleagues at the Sheba Medical Center, in Ramat Gan, Israel, and others, made a surprising discovery when they studied the effects of propionate in mice and humans. The team recently published their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine. Propionate leads to high blood sugar in mice
Dr. Amir Tirosh, an associate professor of medicine at Tel-Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and director of the Institute of Endocrinology at Sheba Medical Center, told Medical News Today that he had initially set out to study the actions of fatty acid-binding protein 4(FABP4), which researchers think plays a role in sugar and fat metabolism.
“We incidentally came across an old scientific paper from 1912 demonstrating that administration of propionate to dogs resulted in increased glucose production,” he explained. To study the connection between propionate and FABP4, Dr. Tirosh and the team gave healthy, nonobese mice a dose of the preservative. As in the dogs, the team found that blood sugar levels rose.
The question is: How does propionate work to achieve this? The researchers found that propionate activated the sympathetic nervous system, as measured by levels of norepinephrine, and increased the levels of the hormones glucagon and FABP4. This caused the liver to produce high levels of glucose, which in turn led to high levels of insulin in the blood.
“Normally, these hormones act during fasting to protect against a dangerous drop in blood glucose,” Dr. Tirosh explained. “In this case, they are engaging without such a threat and increasing blood glucose.”