Preservatives might be messing with our eating habits

A new study links the chemicals in our food to appetite control.

A new study links the chemicals in our food to appetite control.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

What are you putting in your body? Outside of the nutrients and (hopefully not empty) calories you're consuming, there is often a litany of unpronounceable chemicals added to the food we eat — unless it's organic, of course. Some of those chemicals are added for functional reasons, helping with presentation, taste or preserving foods so you can enjoy them for longer. But while these preservatives can be helpful, their full effect on the human body is not clear, and what's beginning to emerge about them is not pretty. In fact, certain preservatives may actually be altering your hormones and causing you to put on pounds.

A new study from researchers at Cedars-Sinai aimed to determine the impact certain preservatives (found in our food and so many other places) can have on different parts of the human body, building on studies that showed the negative effects they have on animals. The three preservatives examined were butylhydroxytoluene (BHT), often added to breakfast cereals or used to prevent fats from turning food bad, perfluorooctanoic (PFOA), found in products like fabrics, leathers, floor waxes and outdoor clothing, and tributyltin (TBT), commonly found in paints and disinfectants but known to show up in seafood due to contaminated water.

In an innovative method of testing, researchers collected adult blood samples and from them, grew stem cell to replicate tissues that line the gut and brain tissues that manage the human body's appetite and metabolism. The gut tissues were then exposed to each chemical, both alone and in tandem, as researchers examined the communication between the two types of tissues. All three chemicals (most prominently BHT) were shown to cause an alteration of hormones and thus a breakdown and miscommunication between the the tissues. Further, the researchers observed that the chemicals also disrupted the cells' mitochondria, which are responsible for converting food and driving the metabolism.

This breakdown in communication between gut tissues and brain tissues becomes all the more critical when we understand the roles they play in the human body. After eating, gut tissues are stimulated and send a signal to the brain letting it know you're full, so there's no need to eat further (which is something most of us ignore even on a good day). But due to the effects of these chemicals, gut tissues cannot properly send signals to the brain, meaning our brains will continue to let us eat because they don't realize that we're actually full.

This study has produced two significant dynamics. First, the study's researchers believe that this tissue dysfunction due to preservative exposure may be a leading contributor to weight gain and obesity. Secondly, the experiment itself is the first of its kind and goes a long way to encouraging sustainable testing of human reactions to chemicals in a way that is affordable, accurate and does no harm.

We have a complicated relationship with the chemicals in our foods. In a capitalist sense, there is always corporate pressure to produce the best (and cheapest) foods and deliver as much as possible to stores and consumers in a timely manner. But, as consumers gain knowledge about what's on their plate, food companies are responding in kind. Last year, McDonald's was criticized for claims of preservative-free food, along with a host of other food companies that have been called out for their misleading labels, while brands like Kraft have begun removing artificial preservatives in their foods. Science is also fighting the good fight. Researchers have long been trying to develop the best of both worlds: natural preservatives that would satisfy both logistical and health needs.

However, as nutritionally savvy as we have become, there's still a lot left to learn. This is not to say all preservatives and chemicals are bad — but that we need to be more aware of the effects they have on us so we can better our interactions with them. That way, when we decide to have one more piece of pizza than we probably should, it's of our own accord.

RJ Skinner is an actor, writer and pro wrestler, so he rants and raves in various states of undress. Follow him on IG @rjcity and if you're feeling crafty, behold The Cynical Crafter.