Nanoparticles in food coloring may be harming your gut health, researchers warn

ITHACA, N.Y. — Nanoparticles in common food coloring and anti-caking agents may be damaging your gut, researchers from Cornell and Binghamton Universities warn. Specifically, metal oxide particles could be disrupting the health of your intestines.

We are consuming these nanoparticles on a daily basis,” says senior author Elad Tako, associate professor of food science at Cornell, in a university release. “We don’t really know how much we consume; we don’t really know the long-term effects of this consumption. Here, we were able to demonstrate some of these effects, which is a key to understanding gastrointestinal health and development.”

Previously, Binghamton researchers led in vitro cellular assessments and screened different nanoparticles food and pharmaceutical industries frequently use. The group then narrowed their focus to specific metal oxide nanoparticles and confirmed proper testing dosages that are suitable for human consumption.

Now, in collaboration with Cornell researchers, study authors used human-appropriate doses of titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide in the Tako laboratory’s in vivo system. The model helps display a health response comparable to that of real humans. They injected the nanoparticles in chicken eggs. After they hatched, the scientists identified changes in the functional, structural, and microbial markers within their blood, the duodenum (upper intestine), and the cecum (a pouch that connects the small and large intestines).

“We found that specific nanoparticles – titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide – ordinarily used in food may negatively affect intestinal functionality,” Tako reports. “They have a negative effect on key digestive and absorptive proteins.”

Should health officials ban these products?

The group also examined zinc oxide, a micronutrient, and iron oxide, an iron fortification supplement, to see how they function as well. The team found that zinc oxide nanoparticles support the intestines and may even help them compensate after suffering damage. On the other hand, iron oxide nanoparticles appear to negatively alter intestinal function and overall health. So, while the iron oxide may serve as a viable option for iron fortification, it may not be a strong option for maintaining gut integrity. It turns out zinc oxide would be better for this.

Even though these findings about currently available food-grade nanoparticles aren’t all that positive, the scientists still don’t think it’s time to totally ban their use. More research would be necessary to back up that decision, and more feasible developments would have to be made in order to introduce healthier, more cost-effective, and sustainable alternatives.

“Based on the information, we suggest simply being aware,” Tako concludes. “Science needs to conduct further investigations based on our findings. We are opening the door for discussion.”

The findings are published in the journal Antioxidants.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan

Shyla Cadogan is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition and Food Science. She is on her way to becoming a Registered Dietitian, with next steps being completion of a dietetic internship at the University of Maryland Medical Center where she currently is gaining experience with various populations and areas of medical nutrition such as Pediatrics, Oncology, GI surgery, and liver and renal transplant. Shyla also has extensive research experience in food composition analysis and food resource management.

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