These 7 harmful food additives trigger leaky gut

If you are dedicated and serious about healing leaky gut and autoimmune disease, I need you to know about a recent study that IDs seven food additives that trigger leaky gut, or at the very least contribute to the condition.

So what, exactly, is leaky gut? Known in the medical literature for more than a 100 years as “intestinal permeability,” in my opinion, many modern doctors don’t know how to ID and treat leaky gut. That’s a shame because it’s believed to be at the root of  which is at the root of many diseases.

Signs and symptoms you have leaky gut include inflammation, joint pain, inflammatory skin disorders and rashes, food allergies and sensitivities and all sorts of other health problems.

According to a study published in a Norwegian medical journal this process “is implicated in the onset of disease include several acute and chronic pediatric conditions that are likely to have their origin during infancy” and has been linked to: (1)

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Autism
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Eczema and psoriasis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS)
  • Type 1 diabetes

Basically, leaky gut results and autoimmune diseases arise when the tight junctions that protect the intestinal mucosa are damaged. This allows bacteria, toxins, allergens and carcinogens that normally protect the gut and immune system to leaky through and set off autoimmune diseases.

Processed foods may seem like a cheap and easy fix, especially when you’re pressed for time. But mounting research shows some of the most common additives we often overlook on ingredients lists could be unleashing digestive distress and beyond. As it turns out, these food additives impact the intestines in a way that promotes the development of autoimmune disease symptoms. So if you’re dealing with inflammatory disease, skin issues, brain fog or many other autoimmune disease issues, it’s time to make focusing on processed food ingredients part of your action plan.

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7 Food Additives that Trigger Leaky Gut

In the study, the research team examined the effects of industrial food additives used in processed food. Specifically, they wanted to see how these ingredients impacted the intestines and on the development of autoimmune diseases — conditions in which the body attacks and damages its own tissues. These food additives are added to processed foods and drinks to improve taste, smell, texture and shelf life.

And what did scientists find? “…a significant circumstantial connection between the increased use of processed foods and the increase in the incidence of autoimmune diseases.”

Published in Autoimmunity Reviews, researchers uncovered evidence that processed foods weaken the intestine’s resistance to bacteria, toxins and other hostile nutritional and not nutritional elements. This increases the risk of autoimmune diseases. (2)

“In recent decades there has been a decrease in incidence of infectious diseases, but at the same time there has been an increase in the incidence of allergic diseases, cancer and autoimmune diseases. Since the weight of genetic changes is insignificant in such a short period, the scientific community is searching for the causes at the environmental level.” — study co-author Aaron Lerner, MD

Here are the 7 food additives that trigger damage in the tight junctions of the gut, according to the study: (3)

1. “Meat Glue”

Otherwise known as microbial transglutaminase, this special enzyme serves to hold proteins together. (Hence the name meat glue.) It’s often used in imitation crab meat (it could be landing in your beloved California sushi rolls!), fish balls and to improve the texture in meats like ham and surimi. (4)

It’s also approved for use as an enzymatic binder to form smaller cuts of meat and poultry into a larger serving of meat. (This even includes some steaks.) Derived from fermented bacteria, a non-pathogenic strain of the organism Streptoverticillium mobaraense, it’s considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration, although other studies would suggest otherwise. It was only approved for use in 1998, so it’s a relatively young food additive.

Thankfully, this food additive that triggers leaky gut is not exempt from labeling, although it is sometimes called TG enzyme.

Another label warning sign? Products formed from pieces of whole muscle meat, or that have been reformed from a single cut, must disclose this fact on their label, as part of the product name, for example, “Formed Beef Tenderloin” or “Formed Turkey Thigh Roast.” (5)

If you eat meat, I always suggests finding a local organic, pasture-raised operation to support. Form a relationship and ask if any food additives are added to the meat.

2. Sugars

Glucose was found to increase gut permeability and produce changes in distribution of the main protein of the tight junction in the human cell line Caco-2, indicating intercellular leakage.

Americans increased use of sugars results in higher levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Once formed, AGEs increase inflammation, which can further exacerbate leaky gut. (6) We now know the sugar industry scandal that involved tricking people into thinking sugar was healthier than fat. This demonized natural, healthy fats and increased sugar in processed foods. As always, use my tricks to kick sugar addiction and drastically cut back on sugar and you’ll be much healthier in the end.

3. Sodium 

A high-salt diet does more than affect your heart. Turns out, it’s also blamed for loosening up those tight junctions that keep your gut function strong and health. Interestingly, a high-salt diet could be behind a spike in autoimmune diseases. Excess salt can actually impact your innate immune system, causing macrophage dysfunction. We need some salt to live, but in general, Americans are getting way too much.

In a recent mouse study, increased salt concentrations actually seemed to trigger neuropathy in those with multiple sclerosis. So to hack your immune system, make sure you’re not eating too much salt. Cutting out processed foods will definitely help. More than 75 percent of Americans’ salt intake comes from processed foods. (7)

4. Emulsifiers

You may have  heard that a common food additive is tied to colon cancer. (8) Emulsifiers like polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose (often known as cellulose gum) are used in things like nonorganic dill pickles, frozen baked goods, non-dairy creamer and more. They’ve also been linked to metabolic dysfunction, obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. (9)

Emulsifiers are added to most processed foods to improve food texture and extend shelf life. But it also throws off healthy levels of intestinal bacteria, triggering chronic, low-level inflammation that promotes colorectal cancer and leaky gut. It seems  emulsifiers act like detergents to disrupt the mucous layer that lines the gut. (10)

5. Organic Acids

Researchers investigated the potential risks of using these solvents in food and beverages. Specifically, alcohol and its metabolites impair the junction barriers need to prevent leaky gut. Researchers say acetaldehyde, which is produced as the liver processed alcohol and is a contributing factor to hangovers, may be to blame. (11)

Acetaldehyde is also found in fermented foods, but in my opinion, I’ve seen great gut improvements when patients work fermented foods into the diet. (Of course, you can experiment to see how your body feels with or without fermented foods.)

6. Gluten

When I work with patients, I tell that it’s imperative that they remove gluten and grains from the diet. (Once your gut is healthy, you can add back in grains that have been fermented and sprouted to eat occasionally.)

Researchers of the food additives that trigger leaky gut study also say gluten is a no-no. They noticed increased gut permeability when immune cells are exposed to gliadin. (Gliadin is a class of proteins in wheat and are a component of gluten. It helps give bread the ability to rise during baking.) (12) Gluten often hides out in unexpected places, including sauces and gravies, where wheat flour is used as a thickening agent.  And please note that even organic wheat contains gluten.

7. Nanometric particles

Nanotechnology is a booming business in the food world. A more than $7 billion business, to be exact. And estimates suggests 40 percent of food industries are using it. (13)

Use of nanoparticles in food and food packaging is skyrocketing in America. Nanotechnology encompasses taking a material and unnaturally making it tiny, with dimensions between 1 and 100 nm. But at these dimensions, the materials may take on unusual physical, chemical and biological properties and functions that are remarkably different from those the original size of the compound, the study authors explain. They can behave in unexpected ways once inside human cells.

So why are we using them in food? Nanomaterials improve the taste, color, look, uniformity and texture of foods. Nanomaterials are also used in food packaging to help bottled beverages prevent CO2 loss. Silver nanoparticles are also embedded in plastic to kill bacteria. (14)

But these nanoparticles are also linked to DNA and cell damage. Titanium dioxide is the most common nanoparticle in food. Manufacturers use it most often to make things like powdered donuts and salad dressings bright white. It also makes gummy bears opaque and enhances colors. (15) We don’t really know what the long-term impacts of eating nanoparticles are, so I avoid them at all costs.


Foods & Supplements that Counteract Intestinal Permeability

Luckily, there are food ingredients and supplements that can help soothe and heal a gut that’s fallen victim to intestinal permeability, AKA leaky gut. Here are a few:

  • Glutamine —  This is a natural leaky gut inhibitor. I specifically use tap into L-glutamine benefits and use it as a cornerstone supplement to help support better digestive health. Why? Science shows us it improves gastrointestinal health because it serves as a vital nutrient for the intestines to rebuild and repair. (16) In essence, it helps heal leaky gut by acting as a Band-Aid for protection from further damage and improves IBS and diarrhea by balancing mucus production, which results in healthy bowel movements (17, 18)
  • Curcumin — A potent anti-inflammatory agent found in turmeric (it’s one of the many documented turmeric benefits), curcumin features a mechanistic potential to inhibit the inflammation and oxidative stress leaky gut. (Just don’t use at too high doses or it could actually enhance oxidated stress.) (19)
  • Prebiotics and Probiotics — While the benefits of probiotics are well-noted, prebiotics, non-digestible fiber compounds, are still largely underappreciated and underconsumed in America. Studies show they help promote a healthy gut and actually help heal leaky gut in those suffering from atopic dermatitis. (20) Raw dandelion greens, garlic, onions and leeks are great prebiotic sources.
  • Bone Broth — I have found that bone broth is the No. 1 thing to consume to combat leaky gut syndrome, overcome food intolerances and allergies and improve joint health. Consuming homemade bone broth or a high-quality bone broth supplement provides a dose of healing compounds like collagen, proline, glycine and glutamine. Nutrition researchers Sally Fallon and Kaayla Daniel of the Weston A. Price Foundation explain that bone broths contain minerals in forms that your body can easily absorb: calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and others. They contain chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine, the compounds sold as pricey supplements to reduce inflammation, arthritis and joint pain. (21)

Final Thoughts on Food Additives that Trigger Leaky Gut

  • This study serves as another reminder that we can greatly improve our health if we focus on cooking from scratch more and relying less on processed foods.
  • Many food additives have never been tested for long-term impact on human health. Who wants to be part of that experiment? Not me. And I hope not you, either.
  • While we can all read labels and avoid these food additives that trigger leaky gut, it’s very clear we need stronger leadership in Congress and in federal agencies who will actually mandate food safety laws that actually protect Americans.
  • Part of a healing leaky gut program must include a plan to avoid processed foods and food additives that trigger leaky gut.


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Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a doctor of natural medicine, doctor of chiropractic and clinical nutritionist with a passion to help people get well using food as medicine and operates one of the world's largest natural health websites: www.DrAxe.com. He is the author of the groundbreaking health book Eat Dirt, which uncovers the hidden causes and cures of leaky gut syndrome. Dr. Axe is an expert in digestive health, functional medicine, natural remedies and dietary strategies for healing. He has been featured on many television shows, including the Dr. Oz Show, CBS and NBC, and has his own Eat Dirt program running on select PBS TV stations. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world, in Nashville, TN, and has been a physician for many professional athletes. DrAxe.com is one of the most visited websites worldwide for healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, essential oils, and natural supplements.