Programmed for Obesity?

by kwolosz on October 9, 2012

Part two of my series on obesity, focusing on food additives.

Image courtesy of Robb Wolfe

Sure, as a nation we are overeating and not exercising nearly enough. But is the balance of calories in (consumption) and calories out (exercise) the only equation to reach and maintain a healthy weight?

Well, the answer to that is “it depends”. At one end, we are responsible for our food choices and the discipline that follows an active lifestyle. But, it may not be as simple. The obesity epidemic may not be about calories alone, rather the chemicals in food additives and processed foods, like emulsifiers and saccharin, which are changing fat cell metabolism in the body.

According to biochemist Dr. Barbara Corkey, former director of the Obesity Research Center at Boston Medical Center and past editor of the medical journal Obesity, “overeating does not cause obesity.” With over five decades of metabolism research, Dr. Corkey has focused her research on metabolic disease, specifically the breakdown of pancreatic beta cells, which produce insulin. Insulin is a key hormone that helps the body convert food into energy and stores it as either glucose or fat.

A new direction of her research questions whether the overwhelming 4,000 additives in the U.S. food supply are contributing to the obesity epidemic. Even more, Dr. Corkey believes that certain environmental triggers, such as pesticides and arsenic poisoning are associated with obesity.

Image courtesy of Dr. Barbara Corkey, director of the Obesity Research Center at Boston Medical Center

After screening nearly 500 food additives for effects on fat, liver and beta cell tissues, preliminary findings flagged two food additives; monoglycerides and saccharin. A widely used class of emulsifier’s known as monoglycerides are found in many processed foods like baked goods, creams, and peanut butter. Saccharin is a common artificial sweetener that is nearly 300 times sweeter than table sugar, found in soda, juice and chewing gum. Only within the last two years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) removed saccharin as a hazardous substance.

Normally, calcium stimulates beta cells to create insulin and in production they increase oxygen consumption. Both additives, monoglyceride and saccharin, made beta cells abnormally secrete insulin. This process released molecules called reactive oxygen species, which have been linked in cell damage, inflammation and obesity.

The suspected link between obesity and exposure to these ‘endocrine disrupters’, or the chemical’s effecting our hormones, has the ability to alter hormones that control both fat storage and glucose regulation. Referred to as “obesogens”, these abnormal changes at the cellular level that trigger fat-cell activity also categorize chemicals that may promote obesity in both humans and animals.

This intriguing, but preliminary, finding might lead to a new understanding on background levels of certain food additives that cause subtle changes in metabolic tissues and pathways. Fundamentally, by identifying these problematic food additives and better understanding how they effect humans at the cellular level, innovative research could lead to a modified prevention and/or treatment of obesity.

You can find more information on Dr. Corkey’s research on food additives here.

Next week I will look at the role of the media and obesity.

***Updated: October 9, 2012 to include a link to Dr. Barbara Corkey’s research and to clarify food additives and beta cell/insulin production***

 

Margaret October 9, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Kari,
Excellent research into a developing field. I know that it must be difficult to find any actual results when there have not been that many studies to date. The research behind this had a lot of big medical words. You did a commendable job trying to break each of these into understandable language. One question: What is an emulsifier?
I would look forward to hearing any of the results that you do find on this down the road.

Thanks,
Margaret

kwolosz October 10, 2012 at 10:51 am

Margaret,

Thank you. Yes this research is very interesting because it goes against the traditional knowledge of what causes obesity (i.e., overeating = overweight).

According to the FDA, emulsifiers are one of the most common type of food additives, used to maintain shelf life and appearance. Here is the link to the FDA website which describes in more detail:
http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfCFR/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=172.836

Margaret October 10, 2012 at 11:40 am

Thanks for the definition,
It seems like they are found in all sorts of sugary foods.
Margaret

Quintus October 10, 2012 at 3:04 am

Nice post.
I wonder if obesity is also not genetically linked in certain individuals. If this is the case certainly all the rubbish we add to our food does not help them. Perhaps you could have mentioned this aspect of the disease?

kwolosz October 10, 2012 at 10:57 am

Quintus,

The obesity ‘gene’ is a topic in of itself! I would need to focus an entire series, let alone a few sentences, on this research. I wanted to focus my topic on one issue effecting obesity, but the role of genetics and obesity is important too.

Stay tuned…maybe I will write about this topic in the future.

Elizabeth Fryer October 10, 2012 at 12:26 pm

“After screening nearly 500 food additives for effects on fat, liver and beta cell tissues, preliminary findings flagged two food additives; monoglycerides and saccharin.”

My initial question was, Flagged them for or as what? I reread. My next question is, Are monoglycerides and saccharin the only two food additives of 500 screened to affect that tissue? If so, then the sentence needs to clear that up: “Only 2 of 500 food additives screened…” Otherwise tell us what they were flagged as or for.

Telling us that saccharine was recently removed from EPA’s hazardous substance list begs the question Why. A one-sentence answer should be good. I would also have separated that bit of info—the EPA removing it and the reason why—into parentheses as it’s ifo not germane to your point. It’s so outside your point, I probably wouldn’t have included it.
——————————————-
“Normally, calcium stimulates beta cells to create insulin and in production they increase oxygen consumption. Both additives, monoglyceride and saccharin, made beta cells abnormally secrete insulin. This process released molecules called reactive oxygen species, which have been linked in cell damage, inflammation and obesity.”

We haven’t been introduced to calcium yet. Is this a food additive? You say “normally,” which leads me to wonder, What’s happening now? Does this paragraph say, “Calcium has been a part of our diets since caveman-time [or whatever. An intro to Ca is necessary]. Calcium stimulates beta cells to create insulin, which is the body’s [here give what insulin does]. That’s how it’s supposed to work, but the additives, both monoglyceride and saccharin, make beta cells abnormally secrete insulin, and an increased insulin output leads to cell damage, inflammation and obesity.” Forget the part about increased O2 consumption—unless you make all the connections for your readers. The paragraph failed to do that.
———————————————————-
“The suspected link between obesity and exposure to these ‘endocrine disrupters’, or the chemical’s effecting our hormones, has the ability to alter hormones that control both fat storage and glucose regulation. Referred to as “obesogens”, these abnormal changes at the cellular level that trigger fat-cell activity also categorize chemicals that may promote obesity in both humans and animals.”

The first sentence is written like readers are familiar with endocrine disrupters. We need an intro before not after. Or, on second look, simply delete “these,” which makes readers think they should know what endocrine disrupters are.
———————————
The tone throughout is appropriate. I like it. You just need to tie info together for readers. Also (and please share this tip), when you’re writing, try to see any questions your readers might have. For example, Why was saccharine on EPA’s list? Why is it removed now? It may be easier to leave that tidbit out of your post to begin with because answering those questions is so off subject.

kwolosz October 12, 2012 at 8:50 am

Eiizabeth,

Thank you for your comments. I will use these critiques to continue improving on my content each week.

Kendra October 10, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Very interesting explanation of one of the challenges that could be contributing to the steep increase in obesity in westernized nations. Often times articles on obesity can be reductive, ignoring the details of the problem in favor of only behavior change mandates. Neat. Perhaps a short discussion of the population effects of the effect that these additive would have, especially in the social context of what groups would be compelled to by foods with lots of additives, would be in order. I think this might more thoroughly demonstrate the implications of her research in terms of health justice and policy.

kwolosz October 12, 2012 at 8:56 am

Kendra,

Interesting that you make the connection between population effects and food additives. Next week I will be posting about the relationship between dietary food choice and social media, particularly the different social groups they target.

Jason October 10, 2012 at 6:09 pm

LOVED THE ARTICLE. MEOWWWWWW

kwolosz October 12, 2012 at 8:56 am

Thank you Mr. jason!

Jennifer October 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm

this was a great comprehensive post. you managed to share a great deal of information in few words, and that’s one of the big skills i think are really helpful for science and public health writers.

with so many food additives (and other contributing factors to health problems) out there, i think it may help to try to stress the bigger picture. i actually thought saccharine had been off the market for awhile, and then put back on the market? (i might be confusing that with another sweetener, though.) 500 is a LOT of questionable ingredients– it will take a VERY long time to get a handle on this (it’s taken a long time to shine the spotlight on BPA, for example), unless citizens start demanding the manufacture of foods that more closely resemble those found in nature. which is beyond the scope of your post, i know. i’m just saying :)

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: