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Can this food additive turn our gut bacteria against us?

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles make up a common additive — E171 — used as a coloring agent in many products. So far, the additive’s safety has been a matter of debate, but new research in mice has found evidence that it could render the gut more susceptible to disease.
A common food additive in white cake icing could ‘prime’ the gut for disease. 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. 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.
Moreover, a study in vitro, published in the journal Environmental Science: Nano in April this year, also found that E171 can lead to the alteration of normal cell function and upkeep in the gastrointestinal tract, which could mean that the substance can damage the gut’s self-protective mechanisms.
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.
“It is well established that dietary composition has an impact on physiology and health, yet the role of food additives is poorly understood,” notes co-lead author Wojciech Chrzanowski, Ph.D., who is an associate professor at the University of Sydney in Australia.
“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 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.