Eating This Common Ingredient During Pregnancy Could Pose a Health Risk

Unhealthy Junk Food Illustration

A new study reveals that consuming emulsifiers, commonly found in ultra-processed foods, during pregnancy or breastfeeding in mice is linked to mild metabolic, cognitive, and psychological impairments in offspring. The research specifically points out that such consumption impacts the development of neural circuits in the offspring’s hypothalamus, which is crucial for metabolism.

The study indicates that there is a need for mothers to be aware of the risks associated with ultra-processed foods.

A new study in mice indicates that the consumption of emulsifiers, a common ingredient in highly processed foods for humans, when pregnant or lactating, is linked to minor health risks for the offspring. Maria Milà-Guasch of the Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS) in Barcelona, Spain, and colleagues recently published the findings in the journal PLOS Biology.

Emulsifiers help to preserve the texture of many ultra-processed foods, including some ice creams, breads, cake mixes, soups, salad dressings, and more. Prior research has linked the consumption of emulsifiers to an increased risk of gut inflammation, obesity, and other health conditions. In addition, unbalanced nutritional habits by pregnant or nursing mothers have been linked to long-term health risks in offspring. However, the specific effects of maternal consumption of emulsifiers on offspring have been unclear.

To help clarify these effects, Milà-Guasch and colleagues provided laboratory mice with water containing two kinds of emulsifiers commonly found combined together in human food—carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80. From before pregnancy until the nursing offspring, female mice received the maximum concentration of each emulsifier allowed in human food products by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. For comparison, other mice received water without any emulsifiers.

Eating Emulsifiers During Pregnancy Lab

Most of the ultra-processed food items consumed nowadays contain emulsifiers in their composition. Credit: Júlia Fos-Domènech & Maria Milà-Guasch (CC-BY 4.0)

The researchers found that the offspring of mice that consumed emulsifiers had a greater risk of certain health issues, including mild metabolic, cognitive, and psychological impairments. These effects were strongest in male offspring, but female offspring also showed impairments.

A combination of gene-expression testing and other lab tests suggested that maternal consumption of emulsifiers led to perturbation of the development of neural circuits in the offspring’s hypothalamus—a part of the brain that plays a central role in regulating metabolism.

Additional research will be needed to further clarify the effects on offspring of emulsifier consumption by pregnant and nursing people. Still, on the basis of their new findings, the researchers call for increased awareness of the potential risks of consumption of ultra-processed foods by mothers. They express particular concern about products perceived to be healthy, including certain vegetarian and vegan products, which nonetheless contain emulsifiers that could potentially lead to health risks for offspring.

Coauthor Marc Claret adds, “Maternal consumption of emulsifiers may affect offspring health, promoting mild metabolic disarrangements, anxiety-like states, and cognitive impairments.”

Reference: “Maternal emulsifier consumption programs offspring metabolic and neuropsychological health in mice” by Maria Milà-Guasch, Sara Ramírez, Sergio R. Llana, Júlia Fos-Domènech, Lea Maria Dropmann, Macarena Pozo, Elena Eyre, Alicia G. Gómez-Valadés, Arnaud Obri, Roberta Haddad-Tóvolli, and Marc Claret, 24 August 2023, PLOS Biology.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002171

This study was funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 725004) and supported by: ‘la Caixa’ Foundation (ID100010434) under agreement LCF/PR/HR19/52160016 and the CERCA Programme/Generalitat de Catalunya (to M.C.); Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action fellowship (H2020-MSCA-IF) NEUROPREG (grant agreement no. 891247; to R.H-T.); the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, Juan de la Cierva fellowship (IJC2018-037341-I to S.R.); Miguel Servet contract (CP19/00083) from Instituto de Salud Carlos III co-financed by ERDF (to A.O.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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