Five Additives Found In “Health Foods” That May Not be Good for Your Gut Health


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More than 10,000 additives are allowed in food sold in the United States for numerous reasons such as preservation, appearance, taste, texture and nutrition. While most consumers think of ultra-processed “junk foods” containing the bulk of food additives, there has been a growing trend towards “clean” versions of the classics that often trick consumers into thinking they are making healthier choices. In many cases they may very well be, however there are numerous additives in these so-called “clean packaged” foods that may be negatively impacting overall health and, most notably, gastrointestinal health.

Common symptoms that point to GI issues include bloating, gas, irregularity and skin issues. There are obviously many reasons for such symptoms ranging from food hypersensitivities and allergies, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety to chronic stress. However, if f you don’t suffer from these conditions, notice any of these symptoms, and are unable to figure out why, don’t forget to check the ingredient labels of your favorite foods.

Here are 5 seemingly benign additives that may be causing gastrointestinal distress in vulnerable people:

1. Gums
Gums have become increasingly prevalent in packaged foods as a way to thicken or emulsify the final product. They are especially popular in many plant-based alternatives such as dairy free cheese, ice cream and milk substitutes as a way to mimic the creaminess of dairy. They are also used in many seemingly healthy salad dressings and sauces as a way to ensure the product does not separate while on the shelf.

While these gums may improve the consistency of many products, they have been shown to cause a host of digestive issues in certain individuals, especially when consumed frequently as may be the case of someone relying on dairy free alternatives. Participants in a study on gum Arabic, for instance, complained of nausea, mild diarrhea and bloating. Xanthan gum and guar gum have both been found to have mild laxative effects when taken in large quantities, and guar gum specifically has been found to increase inflammation in the intestines of those with a diagnosis of IBD. Research has shown, that these gums can actually alter the bacteria in our gut microbiome causing these unfortunate side effects.

2. Zero Calorie Sweeteners
As we have discussed in two other recent posts, these sweeteners are non-nutritive additives that provide a food product with sweetness without the need for sugar, therefore reducing the total caloric density. Many consumers reach for products labeled as “diet” or “sugar-free” with the intention of minimizing their sugar intake in the name of health and weight loss. Some of these sweeteners however, in particular sucralose and aspartame, may have negative consequences for our digestive systems. As more studies are conducted, there is mounting evidence that they can cause dysregulation of the gut microbiome by disrupting the balance of “good” gut bacteria in favor of more “bad” gut bacteria. This can cause downstream consequences such as more frequent symptoms of gas and bloating.

3. Sugar Alcohols
Even so-called natural zero calorie sweeteners have their drawbacks too. Sugar alcohols like erythritol and xylitol, for example, are common sugar free sweeteners in many “healthier” products like ice cream and low carb cookies. While they are derived from natural sources, they can still lead to some pretty significant bloating and gas since they are not digestible in the first segments of the small intestine. Consequently, bacteria at the end of the small intestine (the so-called ileum) and in our large intestine must break them down, creating excess gas as a byproduct. In large quantities, it can even lead to what is called osmotic diarrhea as the non-absorbable molecules draw more water in the intestines. Those struggling with a hypersensitive gut, with IBS and other GI issues may want to avoid these zero calorie sweeteners to prevent worsening symptoms.

4. Natural Flavors
While natural flavors may sound healthier than their artificial counterparts, there is actually very little difference between the final products. Natural flavors must be derived from something in nature, but are then further processed in a lab with hundreds of different possible additives added along the way. According to the Environmental Working Group, natural flavors may consist of up to 80-90% chemical additives. And unfortunately for the consumer, FDA regulations do not require that these separate additives or ingredients be listed on the label, regardless of whether or not they are natural or synthetically derived. Ultimately, the term “natural” has no real meaning.

Since there is little transparency into what natural flavors are made up of, many products may be hiding gut irritating ingredients. For example, many natural flavors in savory foods contain derivatives of garlic, onion or celery powder, which are all considered high FODMAP foods. There is evidence that some high FODMAP foods contain certain carbohydrates that may contribute to IBS symptoms and cause digestive issues in some individuals with a hypersensitive gut.

5. Inulin
Inulin is a type of prebiotic that the human body cannot digest, so it travels non absorbed through the initial portion of the small intestine to reach the ileum and colon. Once the non-absorbed molecule reaches these microbiota-rich sites of the gut, where they are metabolized and consumed by certain microbiota. Inulin consumption has been shown to increase the prevalence of “good” gut microbes, in particular the taxa Bifidobacterium, Lactobacilli, and Akkermansia. These microbes all have been shown to have beneficial effects on gut health. Inulin is naturally found in many common foods such as artichokes, leeks, asparagus and bananas, contributing to the well-known health benefits of these plant-based foods. It is also added to many “health foods” like cereals, probiotic sodas and energy bars in an effort to increase the fiber content of these foods and so that they may be labeled as “gut friendly” or “keto.”

While a fiber-rich diet is essential for a healthy gut microbiome, inulin, any fiber can cause abdominal gas, bloating and discomfort, especially in sensitive groups or when consumed in large amounts. One study actually found that combining psyllium, another non-absorbable fiber type, with inulin may lower the rate of gas production in IBS patients, however it may be wise to adjust the amount of inulin-rich food items if consistent side effects occur.

In summary, individuals with a hypersensitive gut should pay attention to the foods that contain any of these 5 substances. As always, the general advice is to avoid highly processed foods and stick with the most natural ingredients. An additional advice is to reduce the intake of foods with these additives while closely monitoring their gut symptoms. If they notice a significant and consistent decrease in their symptoms, they may further reduce the consumption, and if necessary, eliminate them from their regular diet. By following these steps, you may be able to decrease some uncomfortable symptoms, prevent the development of food-related fears, and instead fully enjoy their food.

Fiona Riddle is a Certified Health Coach with a degree in Psychology from UCLA. She is passionate about a holistic approach to health when working with her private coaching clients. She is an avid cook, constantly creating and sharing new recipes on her Instagram (@feelgoodwithfi) to showcase simple clean home cooking.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD