Food Additives That Can Cause Dysbiosis: Analysis

Heather Campbell
 min read

This article is about food additives that can cause dysbiosis, an imbalance of the intestinal flora.

Food Coloring Agents Used In Pink Orange Blue And Green Sweets Are Food Additives That Can Cause DysbiosisWidely used in the food industry, food additives are substances intended to increase packaged foods’ shelf life and improve their quality and taste.

Food additives are also sometimes used as stabilizers, fillers, coating agents, and colorants. Their presence in food products must be indicated on the label.

Food additives that can cause dysbiosis: Introduction

The market for food additives is constantly growing. Thankfully, their use is regulated by specific laws and must be authorized by the FDA in the United States.

However, many additives raise concerns about their effects, particularly in people with intestinal or systemic disorders.

Numerous studies have shown that food additives can also alter intestinal homeostasis by causing dysbiosis and inflammation, negatively affecting our health and mood.

This article will introduce you to the food additives most likely to modify the intestinal microbiota.

Thickeners and coating agents causing dysbiosis

One of the most common substances used in foods as a filler and thickener is maltodextrin, produced by the breakdown of corn starch.

This thickener can modify intestinal homeostasis (altering the steady balance of gut bacteria) and even promote important intestinal diseases.

Maltodextrin causes dysbiosis (gut bacteria imbalance) by promoting the development of pathogens and reducing mucus production.

Other types of thickeners are widely used, such as:

In contrast, these agents can positively affect the intestinal microbiota.

In fact, pectin has been shown to improve the function of the intestinal barrier and reduce intestinal inflammation. Moreover, polydextrose has a probiotic function and increases the production of short-chain fatty acids.

Alginic acid also has positive effects: it increases the quantity of acetic, propionic, and butyric acid, which are short-chain fatty acids essential to our well-being.

Emulsifiers that can alter our intestinal microbiota

Studies suggest that food emulsifiers may affect the gut-brain axis and induce psychological and even behavioral disorders in people through alteration of the gut microbiota.

Definition: An emulsifier bonds oil and water together.

Among the emulsifiers most used in food, we find:

CMC is, in fact, modified cellulose. This emulsifier is used as a stabilizer, thickener, and suspending agent in powder form for:

  • sauces,
  • diet food products,
  • fruit yogurts,
  • drinks,
  • ice cream, and
  • whipped creams.

P80 is often found in:

  • desserts
  • candy
  • specialty diet products
  • dairy products, and
  • ready-to-eat soups.

To study the effects of these two emulsifiers on intestinal homeostasis, rats were fed CMC and P80 for 3 months.

The researchers observed an alteration of the microbiota with:

  • A decrease in bacteroids
  • An increase in ruminococci
  • Low-grade inflammation
  • Signs of metabolic syndrome and fat storage.

In addition, these emulsifiers:

  • decreased the production of short-chain fatty acids,
  • promoted the overgrowth of mucus-degrading bacteria, and
  • disrupted the mucus-bacteria interactions essential for maintaining intestinal homeostasis.

Good to know: Short-chain fatty acids are essential for regulating mood and nourishing the cells of the intestine.

Research on rats has also found that this alteration in intestinal homeostasis negatively impacts mood:

  • it provoked anxious behaviors in male rats, and
  • it reduced social behavior in female rats.

Since these substances are often present in food for children and young people, they could also influence their behavior, causing anxiety and decreased sociability.

Of course, other food emulsifiers, such as lecithins and mono and diglycerides of fatty acids, are also widely used.

Studies in vitro suggest these substances may:

  • alter the location and composition of the microbiota,
  • promoting bacterial translocation and systemic inflammation,
  • subsequently leading to colitis and metabolic syndrome.

Food colorants

The most commonly used food colorants are:

Silver is often used as a colorant in candy and chocolate coatings, while titanium dioxide is used in gum, candy, chocolate, and fruit juice.

Research on mice treated with titanium dioxide has shown:

  • an increase in intestinal inflammation,
  • a modification of the permeability of the barrier with an alteration of the composition of the microbiota,
  • a decrease in mucus production, and
  • the release of inflammatory cytokines.

Moreover, by treating the microbiota of “healthy” rats with titanium dioxide, the researchers noticed:

  • a decrease in the production of short-chain fatty acids, and
  • oxidative stress.

Other studies on mice have shown that exposure to silver:

  • causes dysbiosis, and
  • decreases the production of short-chain fatty acids.

Taste enhancers

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a food additive used in many preparations to enhance food flavor.

To know its effect on the intestinal microbiota, a study was conducted in which MSG was added to the diet of pigs.

The result showed a variation in microbial diversity and an accumulation of fat in the back muscles of the animals.

Antimicrobials and preservatives

Benzoic acid

Benzoic acid is a bacteriostatic agent often used by the food industry in:

  • fruit juices,
  • fruit and vegetable salads,
  • dried fruits,
  • gherkins,
  • sauces, and
  • gum.

Studies have shown that benzoic acid can affect the gut microbiota of pigs and chickens:

  • In moderate amounts, researchers have found that it has a positive effect on the pig microbiota because it improves the function of the intestinal barrier and digestion.
  • In excessive quantities, it leads to intestinal lesions.

Silver nanoparticles (AgNPs)

Another type of antimicrobial agent is silver nanoparticles (AgNPs), widely used in the food industry.

According to studies in mice, silver nanoparticles are capable of causing dysbiosis and damage to intestinal microvilli (hairlike structures on cell surfaces) and glands in the small intestine.

AgNPs are mainly used in various food and dietetic products as well as in medicinal products.

Another study found that exposure to silver nanoparticles led to alterations of the microbiota with neurobehavioral alterations (such as decreased memory, spatial learning, and depressive-like behaviors).


Although triclosan has been banned as a food preservative in the United States, it is frequently used in cosmetics, particularly in toothpaste and mouthwash.

Triclosan is among the top 10 river pollutants in the United States and has been found frequently in the human body.

Studies have shown that exposure of mice to triclosan for three weeks through the diet causes:

  • intestinal dysbiosis, reducing the diversity and modifying the composition of the microbiota;
  • low-grade intestinal inflammation; and
  • colitis.

Trisoclan has even been shown to promote carcinogenesis (cancer formation) in the colon.

In addition, some research has shown that it can be transferred through breastfeeding. Namely, alterations in the gut microbiota of newborns have been reported after being fed breast milk containing triclosan residues.

Thus, triclosan or other antimicrobials can all negatively affect the gut microbiota and, therefore, our psychophysical well-being.

Non-caloric artificial sweeteners

Non-caloric artificial sweeteners are low-calorie substances that provide a sweet taste to foods. They are frequently used in beverages, snacks, and dairy products.

Unfortunately, they are too often found in products for children, giving the false impression of being healthier because they are lower in calories.

These sweeteners are incorporated into almost all processed foods and not only in sweets but also in savory foods to promote stability and shelf life and to improve taste and texture.

The most commonly used artificial sweeteners are:

Numerous studies have highlighted the ability of these substances to modify the intestinal microbiota and cause glucose intolerance through intestinal dysbiosis.

These observations are particularly troubling, considering that people with glucose intolerance problems are the primary consumers of artificial sweeteners.

Indeed, it seems that oral intake of saccharin causes glucose intolerance and dysbiosis in mice and humans.

The addition of sucralose to the drinking water of mice for about 6 months caused a change in the microbiota and its metabolites.

As for aspartame, it has been shown to decrease intestinal bacterial diversity.

In addition, prenatal exposure to acesulfame-k would alter the composition of the microbiota in pups.

Studies suggest that these non-caloric artificial sweeteners have negative metabolic effects due to dysbiosis and may cause type II diabetes and other diseases.

On the other hand, unlike artificial sweeteners, glycosides extracted from stevia leaves have not shown any adverse effect on the intestinal microbiota in humans.

Therefore, this would mean stevia should be preferred to non-caloric artificial sweeteners.

Food additives that can cause dysbiosis: Conclusion

The food industry uses many food additives such as emulsifiers, coating agents, thickeners, artificial sweeteners, colorants, preservatives, and flavor enhancers.

The purpose of these substances is to increase the shelf life of packaged foods and to improve their quality and taste. Thankfully, the market for these products is governed by specific laws and is overseen by the FDA in the US.

Studies have shown that food additives can have harmful effects on our health and especially on our intestinal microbiota.

Therefore, consuming natural and unmodified foods is recommended to avoid negative effects on our intestinal balance and overall health.

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More