Scientist Barbara Corkey breaks new ground in researching food additives as a causative factor of obesity.
Take one hard look at the label for any sort of packaged food, and you begin to wonder what it is you are actually eating.
Those unrecognizable ingredients are mostly substances called “food additives,” which ubiquitously appear in cheap and convenient processed foods.
Recently, Barbara Corkey, director of the Obesity Research Center at Boston Medical Center, has begun innovative research into food additives as a possible causative agent for obesity.
“There is no evidence that overeating and inactivity are the initiating causes of obesity and diabetes in our population. They may simply coexist or be caused by other yet unidentified factors.” – Barbara Corkey
Part of Corkey’s research questions whether the additives in food cause changes in bodily systems that boost the likelihood of an individual becoming obese.
In her preliminary research, Corkey found several environmental compounds that increase insulin secretion, which increases the chance of diabetes and obesity. These compounds included food preservatives like monoacylglycerides, the artificial sweetener saccharin, and excess iron.
To date, no other research has been conducted in this area.
Dr. Susan Vendeland is a professor of applied health science at Wheaton College and has a Ph.D in Nutritional Biochemistry from Cornell University.
Vendeland’s reaction to food additives as a causative factor for obesity was to point out that there has been scarce research or consideration of the topic and that “obesity isn’t just about what we eat at all.”
In fact, fighting obesity requires a changed lifestyle, as factors for obesity include genetics, environment, physical activity, sleep patterns, relationships, and even when a person eats.
After looking at Corkey’s research, however, Vendeland said of Corkey, “She has a hunch, and this is how science moves ahead. She is thinking out of the box. She sounds very, very creative as a researcher.”
“In the absence of evidence proving that the current focus on overindulgence and idleness as causes of insulin resistance (blaming patients for their disease) is valid, it is suggested that we increase our focus on the thousands of factors that have changed during this epidemic and evaluate alternative models.” – Barbara Corkey
Even so, Vendeland pointed out that many other lifestyle choices besides eating processed foods have changed in tandem with rising obesity rates.
Further, some food additives have actually proven beneficial to society. Vendeland explained that stomach cancer rates in the United States used to be quite high. The addition of certain substances to the US food supply has made stomach cancer virtually nonexistent in the US today.
Although Vendeland strongly stressed that correlation does not lead to causation, she said, “We need to explore every lead on this issue (obesity). If she (Corkey) found something, everyone would jump on the bandwagon in researching it.”
Clearly, the capability to lay the blame for obesity on food additives is still a long way off, but the implications for the healthy people worldwide is immense.
Finding a cause could significantly reduce those suffering in the developed world, and
save those in developing countries where obesity is on the rise.
Over the past 50 years, both the use of food additives and obesity rates worldwide have risen significantly.
Considering the global phenomenon, here’s two – purely speculative – correlations:
1. Recently, there has been a rising realization in the US that many of the substances Americans consume daily are banned in other countries.
As an example, numerous food additives banned in Europe are commonly found in the US food system. These include food colorings, found in candies and macaroni and cheese; brominated vegetable oil, found in sodas, like Mountain Dew; Olestra, found in chips; and rBGH and rBST, found in nonorganic dairy products.
Drawing a tentative correlation to obesity rates, the United States had an obesity rate of 36.5% in 2010, one of the highest in the world, while European countries overall have much lower rates. Norway, which has bans on numerous food additives, had an obesity rate of 10%, as recorded in 2008.
The closest European Union country to the Unites States according to the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development data was the United Kingdom at 24.8% in 2011.
Could it be that the United States has higher obesity rates than Norway, for example, due to the different amounts of food additive ingested?
2. Between 1980 and 2008, the number of people who are obese more than tripled in developing countries according to a 2014 report by the Overseas Development Institute.
That is an increase from 250 million affected to 904 million.
As these countries develop, they gain more access to processed foods and sugary beverages like soda. This means they also gain more access to food additives, substances vastly different from the natural ingredients of a local diet.
As an example, today, Mexico has the highest obesity rate in the world at 32.8%. To combat the rapidly inflating obesity rates, Mexico has recently instituted a tax on soda in hopes of
reducing the amounts of sugary beverages the people consume.
It could be that the influx of food additives in developing countries plays a role in rising levels of obesity as well.