Joint study with Sheba and U.S. researchers: Link discovered between food preservative and rising rates of obesity and diabetes
In a groundbreaking joint study, Sheba researchers and U.S. scientists from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, uncovered a connection between propionate, a chemical commonly used as a food preservative, and the increased worldwide rates of obesity and diabetes. The results of the study were published recently in the Science Translational Medical Journal.
The rising prevalence of diabetes around the globe has led to the suggestion that external factors, such as environment and food, may be involved. The research teams in this study therefore chose to examine propionate. Because this preservative inhibits the growth of mold, it is often used to extend the shelf life of baked goods.
When propionate was given to mice, it triggered a chain reaction that culminated in a surge of hormones that produced more glucose and led to hyperglycemia – a defining trait of diabetes. The scientists then gave the mice a quantity of propionate that is generally used in a serving of food. As a result, the mice gained weight and developed insulin resistance.
After the research study with mice, the scientists designed and conducted a double-blind placebo-controlled study on 14 healthy humans. Higher levels of specific hormones, including glucagon, were found in the members of the group who had ingested propionate. These findings indicate that this food preservative plays a role in the metabolic process and could be a possible contributor to the international increase in cases of obesity and diabetes.
“The dramatic increase in the incidence of obesity and diabetes over the past 50 years cannot be attributed to genetic changes, and involves contributing environmental and dietary factors,” said Dr. Amir Tirosh, Director of the Institute of Endocrinology at Sheba Medical Center and one of the researchers of this study. “One such factor that warrants attention is the extensive use of chemicals in the processing, preservation, and packaging of foods. We are exposed to hundreds of these chemicals on a daily basis, and most have never been tested for their long-term metabolic effects.”
While propionate is FDA-approved, the troubling results of this study point to a need for developing alternative methods of food preservation.