Fear Everything

Fear & Curiosity About Risks in the Food Supply

Ask any attorney. Safe is a four-letter word. So in light of data that raises some good questions about the risks of a very common food additive – propionate – how should we respond? Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health have found evidence to suggest propionate may alter our metabolism and lead to weight gain.

Yet it’s generally recognized as safe, according to the FDA.

Studies in Mice and Humans

Amir Tirosh and colleagues published their new research in Science Translational Medicine. They found that when mice ate food with propionate doses found in foods as a preservative, the mice developed insulin resistance. Over time, those mice began to gain weight. Likewise, in a small, well-controlled human study, the researchers found metabolic changes consistent with what they were seeing in mice.

Commenting on the study, Michelle Cardel tells us that its findings are strong, but advises caution:

I would note that these are preliminary findings that were based on 14 healthy, lean, and nondiabetic patients at one meal. Thus we need longer term randomized trials in diverse populations to further understand the effects of propionate.

Another Strike Against Ultra-Processed Foods

But what is clear from this study is that we have one more reason to be cautious about highly processed foods. Earlier this week, we wrote about a carefully controlled study by Kevin Hall that shows ultra-processed foods can lead to weight gain.

On balance, we have good reasons for caution and for curiosity. Caution means that it makes sense to favor whole, unprocessed foods to the extent that we can. And minimally processed foods are a better choice than highly processed foods. Caution, not fear, is what makes sense.

But even more important is curiosity. The research we have amounts to lots of associations and some good experimental data. However, we have much more to learn. What are the characteristics of ultra-processed foods that are problematic? What’s the source of the risks? We have much to learn.

Curiosity leads to better insights. Fear takes us nowhere.

Click here for the study, here and here for more perspective on it.

Fear Everything, illustration © Jeff Gates / flickr

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April 26, 2019