Food additives are commonly used to preserve flavour or enhance taste, appearance, or other qualities to make it more appealing to the consumer as well as extend shelf-life. The health effects of such additives have long been debated and new research suggests that a common food additive found in more than 900 products could be doing significant damage to your gut health; it may even cause cancer.
Titanium dioxide nano-particles, or E171, is a common additive used by manufacturers to whiten various products, including chewing gum, cake icing and candy, for instance. Researchers at the University of Sydney decided to study the effects of E171 on mice and discovered that it made the gut more susceptible to disease.
“It is well established that dietary composition has an impact on physiology and health, yet, the role of food additives is poorly understood,” said co-lead author Dr Wojciech Chrzanowski, who is an associate professor at the University of Sydney in Australia. “There is increasing evidence that continuous exposure to nano-particles has an impact on gut microbiota composition, and since gut microbiota is a gatekeeper of our health, any changes to its function have an influence on overall health,” he added. The researchers mainly wanted to stimulate discussion on new standards and regulations to ensure safe use of nano-particles in Australia and globally.
The study, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, has uncovered new evidence which explains how E171 can alter the activity of gut bacteria in potentially dangerous ways. For the study, the research team assessed the effect of E171 on the gut microbiota of mice by administering it in their water and also conducted some experiments in vitro.
Initial results indicated that the titanium dioxide particles had little-to-no-impact on the composition of the gut microbiota. However, when the mice were assessed further, it was noticed that the substance affected release of microbial metabolites - molecules produced by the bacteria - which interact with their biological environment, acting as messengers between the gut bacteria and their host. In vitro experiments also showed that titanium dioxide altered the distribution of bacteria in the gut which led to the formation of biofilm. This is a sticky ‘network’ that alters the way in which the bacteria act, and it can also influence the immune system’s response to infection. Additionally, bio-films also do not respond to usual methods of treatment, such as antibiotics, which can render them a fierce foe to be reckoned with.
“This study investigated effects of titanium dioxide on gut health in mice and found that titanium dioxide did not change the composition of gut microbiota, but instead it affected bacteria activity and promoted their growth in a form of undesired biofilm,” explained associate professor Dr Laurence Macia, the study’s co-lead author.
The changes observed by the researchers on the effects of titanium dioxide on the gut environment were also associated with markers of inflammation in the colon, meaning that the substance was able to ‘prime’ the gut for disease. The researchers are certain that their new research indicates that titanium dioxide interacts with bacteria in the gut and impairs some of their functions which, in turn, may result in development of disease.
After a thorough analysis of the results, the authors of the study believe that E171 is not harmless and its potential effects on health should be recognised and addressed by officials. They are hoping that consumption and use of E171 in food products would be regulated by appropriate authorities across the globe.