Eating an additive commonly found in ultra-processed foods during pregnancy may raise the risk of health problems in children, scientists say.
A Spanish study on mice found two common emulsifiers used to bind food chemicals resulted in their offspring developing physical and mental health issues, such as anxiety.
The study looked at two additives – carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 – that are found in thousands of foods, including microwave meals, butter, dressings, and ice cream.
It adds to the long list of health problems caused by eating too many ultra-processed foods, a staple of the American diet.
Some of America’s favorite products have up to 120 hard-to-pronounce ingredients and are loaded with sugar, fat, and sodium.
Spanish researchers found that giving pregnant or nursing mice water with the emulsifiers carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 resulted in their offspring having mild physical and mental health issues, such as intended weight loss and anxiety
Emulsifiers, which are commonly found in ultra-processed foods like microwave meals, butter, dressings, and ice cream, could increase the risk of complications in offspring of pregnant mice
The researchers gave female mice water containing one percent emulsifiers, the maximum amount permitted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Usually, anywhere from 0.25 percent to 0.8 percent is added to food.
The mice continued to receive the water through pregnancy and nursing. A control group was given water without emulsifiers.
They found that the mice’s offspring experienced unintentional weight loss and anxious behaviors at 10 weeks old.
Male mice were more likely to have weight loss, while females experienced anxiety more often.
This is because the emulsifiers disturbed neural connections in the hypothalamus, a brain structure that acts as the body’s control center.
The hypothalamus produces leptin, a hormone that makes the body expend more energy, leading to weight loss.
Unintended weight loss, when uncontrolled, could lead to serious health consequences, including malnutrition.
Female mice also experienced higher levels of anxiety.
While mice in the study lost weight, climbing obesity rates suggest that additives in processed foods could be causing the opposite effect in humans.
For example, a global comparative study published in Obesity Reviews showed that an increase in sales per capita of ultra-processed food and drink was associated with higher body mass index (BMI).
These foods have become ubiquitous in the American diet.
A 2022 study from Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute, for example, estimated that 73 percent of the United States food supply is ultra-processed.
And a study published in Frontiers in Nutrition found that more than 60 percent of US caloric intake comes from these foods.
Processing involves adding or altering raw ingredients, such as by storing them in oil or putting sugar or salt into them.
Foods like apples are usually exactly how they appear in nature, and are classed as minimally processed.
Processed foods, such as apple sauce, have gone through at least one level of processing that has changed their original form.
Ultra-processed foods have gone through multiple levels of processing and are usually full of extra hard-to-pronounce fats, colors and preservatives.
Jessica Cording, registered dietitian in New York City, previously told DailyMail.com: ‘[Ultra-processed foods] tend to be very high in sodium, things like sodium, sugar, refined carbohydrate in general, and unhealthy fats, as well as preservatives.’
Microwave meals, snack mixes, and ice cream are common examples.
Though the health effects in the new study are mild, they add to a long list of complications past research has found.
A 2022 study published in the journal Neurology, for example, found that a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food consumption could raise the risk of dementia.
Additionally, a large cohort study in France found that the same increase in ultra-processed foods led to an increased risk of breast cancer.
And a pair of studies from researchers in Spain and France found an association between consuming ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of early death.
Researchers in the new study said that more research is needed to clarify how these effects in mice would translate to humans.
The study was published in the journal PLOS Biology.