In the food industry, the conservant is known as E-280, E-281, E-282 and E-283. Bread manufacturers use it habitually in the preparation of mold bread and pastries, and its utility is beyond doubt, because its presence prevents the appearance of mold and the proliferation of bacteria.

Its name is propionate, a common food additive approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), whose safety has ironically been questioned by an international team of scientists led by Harvard University.

Their study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, states that the consumption of propinate could increase the levels of hormones involved in the regulation of body weight and diabetes, with an increased risk of suffering the latest disease and obesity.

When we thought that we had the country divided between sliced ​​bread with crust or without it, now it turns out that the debate should have focused on whether to eat the fluffy food or not.

Endocrinologist at Harvard University and lead author of the study, Amir Tirosh, explains the purpose of the research:

“Given the epidemic proportion of obesity and diabetes, the main message of our study reinforces the need to broadly assess the possible long-term metabolic effects of many environmental factors that have changed in recent decades, both because of their positive and negative effects. Global efforts should include, among others, all the ingredients used in food, at the molecular level.

The work bases its results on a combination of studies on animals and people.

In a first phase, scientists administered propionate to mice and found that they increased their levels of glucagon, norepinephrine and FABP4 (a gluconeogenic hormone, that favors the production of glucose).

Such increase produced hyperglycemia in the rodents , which is an increase in blood sugar above normal levels.

The animals gained weight and their body’s insulin resistance increased.

In a second phase, scientists completed the study with a small experiment in people: in a sample of 14 adults, they saw that those who ate food with certain levels of propionate had significant increases in noradrenaline, glucagon and FABP4 soon after their intake.

The coincidence is interesting, but are the results of this study solid enough to start shaking? What limitations does the research have?

“The study in mice has a very careful and high-quality design, they have done more than ten experiments and have tested each hypothesis in detail, clearly demonstrating its conclusion: the problems caused by propionate and the mechanisms by which it causes them.”

As for the results obtained in humans, the study explains that “it seems remarkable that the results obtained are on the same line and at least, from the outset.

We already knew that ultra-processed products were harmful, in any case now we also know one of the possible mechanisms.

According to EFSA, the average intake of propionate in adults from all dietary sources (natural and as an additive) is around 1.1 to 7.7 milligrams per kilo of body weight per day.

For an adult weighing 70 kilos, this is between 0.077 and 0.5 grams per day, an amount very far from that used in the study, 1 gram.

In 2014, the ingredient has reassessed and the conclusion was that there were no safety problems, even used as an additive and at the maximum allowed concentrations.

Should you look for alternatives?

Propionate is an additive that is found naturally in some foods due to microbial action.

It is a short chain organic acid that is part of dairy products such as cheese, a food in which it appears in large quantities.

It is also found in coffee or crustaceans, and its use as an additive is authorized in different products for its function and its antimicrobial action.

Propionate can be added to meat products, bakery and pastries, cheeses and others and even if its industrial use is not done indiscriminately and its safety is proven, the Harvard scientists want to open a new path to solve the question of safety.

I believe that it is our responsibility, as a scientific community, not only to highlight the dangers and warnings, but also to provide the public and the industry with evidence of safety of what can be used, at what dose and combinations,” says the study.

While we await new alternatives and research that endorse these first results, we can, in any case, look in detail at what we ingest.

It is worth remembering, that processed products cause diabetes, obesity and many other metabolic diseases.

Until recently we thought that all the damage was due to the excess calories that these products provide, but more and more we see that there are other factors involved.

Scientists encourage people to avoid these dangers avoiding the consumption of processed foods, and recommends “eating a little more as our grandmothers and grandparents did: food as it is in nature, go to the market, consume raw foods in season instead of prepared, buy foods without packaging or in any case those that have a minimum number of ingredients.

And what about the bread?

“Choosing freshly baked bread with minimal or no added preservatives is probably an important safe to promote health”, concludes the author of the study.

In any case, the important thing is to have information to make the best decision.

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