ATLANTA — Results from mice studies suggest the broad use of emulsifying agents in processed food might be contributing to an increasing societal incidence of obesity/metabolic syndrome and other chronic inflammatory diseases, according to research published on-line Feb. 25 in Nature.

The research, conducted in part by researchers from Georgia State University in Atlanta, said two commonly used emulsifiers (carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate 80) induced low-grade inflammation and obesity/metabolic syndrome in mice. Healthy mice whose water contained the two chemicals became obese and developed metabolic problems such as glucose intolerance.

The researchers pointed out multi-layered mucus structures cover the intestinal surface, which keeps a vast majority of gut bacteria at a safe distance from epithelial cells that line the intestine. Agents that disrupt mucus-bacterial interactions might have the potential to promote diseases associated with gut inflammation.

“To be sure this is an interesting field of investigation, but at this time gut microbial patterns are reflective of many different influences, only one being diet,” said Marcia D. Greenblum, senior director, health and wellness communications, for the International Food Information Council, Washington. “I would say it is too early to draw any conclusions or suggest avoidance of any products from the results of this laboratory study. This experimental data does not predict if the mouse response would be similar to human response or if humans are able to safely consume doses within healthful diets.”

Carboxymethylcellulose is a cellulose gum. Polysorbate 80 is also known as Tween 80.

Carboxymethyl cellulose is listed as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) as a substance migrating to food from cotton or cotton fabrics used in dry food packaging, while its sodium salt is listed as GRAS as a miscellaneous or general purpose food additive, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) finds use as a thickener, stabilizer, film former and suspending agent, according to the fourth edition of Baking Science & Technology, published by Sosland Publishing Co., Kansas City. In baked foods, CMC finds use as a water binder and adhesive in cereal bars and may be employed to stabilize the transparent glazes applied to donuts.