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Small pieces of food colouring could be bad for your gut.

Researchers at Cornell and Binghamton Universities say that nanoparticles in common food colorings and “anti-caking” chemicals could harm your digestive system. In their article in the journal Antioxidants, they said that metal oxide particles could be the cause of health problems in your intestines.

“We eat these nanoparticles every day,” said Elad Tako, an associate professor of food science at Cornell and the lead author of the study.

“We don’t really know how much we consume, and we don’t really know how this consumption will affect us in the long run. Here, we were able to show some of these effects, which is important for understanding the health and development of the digestive system.”

In the past, researchers at Binghamton oversaw in vitro cell evaluations and tested a number of nanoparticles that are commonly used in the food and drug industries. The team then focused on one type of metal oxide nanoparticle and found the right testing doses that people can safely take.

Now, in the Tako lab’s in vivo system, experts from Cornell helped the study authors use doses of titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide that are safe for humans. The model helps show a response to health that is like a person’s. Chicken eggs were filled with the nanoparticles. The researchers say that the functional, structural, and microbial markers in their blood, duodenum (upper intestine), and cecum (a pouch that connects the small and large intestines) all changed after they hatched.

“We found that nanoparticles like titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide, which are often used in food, may hurt the way the gut works,” Tako says. “They hurt proteins that are important for digestion and absorption.”

The team also looked at how iron oxide, which is a supplement for adding iron, and zinc oxide, which is a micronutrient, work.
The research team found that zinc oxide nanoparticles help the intestines stay healthy and may even help them heal after being hurt. On the other hand, iron oxide nanoparticles seem to hurt the health and function of the gut. So, iron oxide might be a good choice for getting more iron, but it might not be the best choice for keeping the gut healthy. It seems that zinc oxide works better for this.

Even though these results aren’t very good, the experts still don’t think it’s time to ban the use of nanoparticles that are safe for food. To back up that conclusion, more research would need to be done, and more practical steps would need to be taken to make healthier, cheaper, and more long-lasting alternatives.

“Based on what we know, we suggest just being aware,” Tako said in the end. “Science needs to do more research based on what we’ve found. We’re making it possible to talk about it.”