Can This Food Additive Turn Our Gut Bacteria Against Us?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

E171 is a food additive that manufacturers use to whiten various products, including chewing gum, cake icing, and candy, for instance.

While the addition of this substance may render certain products more appealing, there is an ongoing debate about its safety.

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France, for instance, will ban the use of E171 in food products starting next year, over concerns that the additive could lead to health problems.

Research in mice, which appeared last year in Scientific Reports, actually tied E171 consumption to the formation of colon cancer tumors.

This month, another study conducted in mice has uncovered new evidence that this common additive can “prime” the gut for disease.

The research — the results of which appear in Frontiers in Nutrition — explains how E171 can alter the activity of gut bacteria in potentially dangerous ways.

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“There is increasing evidence that continuous exposure to nanoparticles has an impact on gut microbiota composition, and since gut microbiota is a gatekeeper of our health, any changes to its function have an influence on overall health,” he continues.

The additive alters the behavior of bacteria

“The aim of this research is to stimulate discussions on new standards and regulations to ensure safe use of nanoparticles in Australia and globally,” explains Chrzanowski.

Chrzanowski and colleagues administered E171 to the mice in their water, then assessed the substance’s effect on the gut microbiota. The investigators also conducted some experiments in vitro.

They found that the titanium dioxide particles had little to no impact on the composition of the gut microbiota.

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However, in assessing the mice, they noticed that the substance affected the release of microbial metabolites — molecules produced by the bacteria — which interact with their biological environment, acting as messengers between the gut bacteria and their host.

In vitro experiments also showed that titanium dioxide altered the distribution of bacteria in the gut, which led to the formation of biofilm. This is a sticky “network” that alters the way in which the bacteria act, and it can also influence the immune system’s response to infection.

Moreover, biofilms do not respond to usual methods of treatment, such as antibiotics, which can render them a fierce foe to be reckoned with.

“Biofilms are bacteria that stick together, and the formation of biofilm has been reported in diseases such as colorectal cancer,” Macia notes.

‘Pivotal evidence’ that E171 is harmful

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The changes that the researchers saw titanium dioxide making in the gut environment were also associated with markers of inflammation in the colon, meaning that the substance was able to “prime” the gut for disease.

“This study presents pivotal evidence that consumption of food containing food additive E171 (titanium dioxide) affects gut microbiota as well as inflammation in the gut, which could lead to diseases such as inflammatory bowel diseases and colorectal cancer.”

Wojciech Chrzanowski, Ph.D.

According to Macia, the current research shows “that titanium dioxide interacts with bacteria in the gut and impairs some of their functions, which may result in the development of diseases.”

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