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Food preservatives could be messing with our gut

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Common preservatives in processed food could be messing with your gut—and that could lead to bigger health problems.

Preservatives that are usually listed in small print on food labels—such as sodium benzoate, calcium propionate and potassium sorbate—could be upsetting the delicate balance of bacteria in our gut microbiome.

These preservatives are called ‘lantibiotics’—a portmanteau term of lanthipeptide and antibiotics—that have powerful antimicrobial properties that help preserve processed food and give them a longer shelf life, but they could be having a bad effect on our gut.  

The damage could be so bad that you might just as well have eaten contaminated food in the first place, say researchers from the University of Chicago.

They looked at the impact of lantibiotics on gut bacteria and found they killed pathogens and commensal, or ‘friendly’, bacteria.  

The researchers also tested the impact of nisin, a more traditional preservative found in beer, sausages, cheese and dipping sauces, on gut bacteria, and found it could have the same effect as the newer lantibiotics.  Nisin is produced from bacteria that live in the mammary glands of cows.  “Nisin is, in essence, an antibiotic that has been added to our food for a long time, but how it might impact our gut microbes has not been well studied,” said researcher Zhenrun Zhang.

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ACS Chemical Biology, 2024; doi: 10.1021/acschembio.3c00577
Article Topics: Gut Health, preservatives
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