Regular consumption of ultra-processed foods is known to increase the risk of metabolic disorders including diabetes. Researchers have now found that certain emulsifiers, a common food additive used in many processed and packaged foods, are linked to an elevated risk of type 2 diabetes.

Emulsifiers are additives used in food to blend two substances that would otherwise be separate when mixed. They are used in products such as industrial cakes, bread, biscuits, desserts, yogurts, ice creams, chocolate bars, margarine, and ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals. They help to improve appearance, taste, and texture and lengthen shelf life.

Studies have shown that the use of emulsifiers could disrupt gut health, increase inflammation, the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, heart diseases and cancer.

To understand the link between the consumption of emulsifiers and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the researchers of the latest study examined the dietary habits of a group of 104,139 adults in France, tracking them for up to 14 years (between 2009 and 2023). The participants were part of the NutriNet-Santé web-cohort study with an average age of 43.

The participants were asked to record their dietary intake at least two days, every six months over 14 years, detailing all foods and beverages consumed, including brand names for industrial products. These records were matched against databases to identify food additives like emulsifiers, and precise measurements were determined using laboratory tests.

During the study period, 1056 cases of diabetes were diagnosed which were verified using multiple data sources. After accounting for factors like age, sex, BMI, education, family history, lifestyle habits, and diet quality, researchers noted that chronic exposure to certain emulsifiers was linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes risk over seven years.

The following are the emulsifiers and their corresponding risk:

  • Carrageenans (total carrageenans and E407)- 3% increased risk per 100 mg/day increment
  • Tripotassium phosphate (E340) -15% increased risk per 500 mg/day increment
  • Mono- and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E472e)- 4% increased risk per 100 mg/day increment
  • Sodium citrate (E331)- 4% increased risk per 500 mg/day increment
  • Guar gum (E412)- 11% increased risk per 500 mg/day increment
  • Gum Arabic (E414)- 3% increased risk per 1000 mg/day increment
  • Xanthan gum (E415) - 8% increased risk per 500 mg/day increment

The researchers caution that the study does not establish a causal relationship and to understand the mechanisms linking food additive emulsifiers and the onset of type 2 diabetes, further epidemiological, toxicological, and interventional experimental studies are required.

"We found direct associations between the risk of type 2 diabetes and exposures to various food additive emulsifiers widely used in industrial foods, in a large prospective cohort of French adults," the researchers wrote.

"...Our results represent key elements to enrich the debate on re-evaluating the regulations around the use of additives in the food industry, to better protect consumers," said Mathilde Touvier, a lead author of the study.