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Am Ingredients Your Leaky Gut Hates

7 Ingredients Your Leaky Gut Hates (Hint: Hold the Cool Whip)

Are ingredients in processed foods (food additives) a contributor for leaky gut?

Food additives have been proposed as a likely culprit in increased intestinal permeability, or leaky gut syndrome (1). In particular, surfactants/emulsifiers added to food products are known to increase intestinal permeability.

Connecting the dots is not difficult when considering that surfactants are used as ingredients in medications to increase their absorption by opening up the tight junctions of the intestinal tract and allowing larger molecules to pass through to the blood stream with ease. Unfortunately, this allows not only the intended substance to through, but also allergens, bacteria and toxins present in the gastrointestinal lumen as well, which ultimately leads to an inflammatory response in the form of allergic reaction or autoimmunity.

Surfactants used in foods are virtually the same as those used in pharmaceuticals (1). They are used for their ability to act as lubricants, emulsify oils or fats in batters, build structure, aerate, improve certain qualities of the final product, extend shelf life, modify crystallization, prevent sticking, and retain moisture (2).

Surfactants are used in food products such as breads and other bakery items, dairy products and ice creams, chewing gum, cookies, sponge cakes and other cakes, crackers, cereals, potato-based snacks, quick cook rice, margarines and spreads, sauces, “light” mayonnaises, whipping cream substitutes, non-dairy creamers and hypoallergenic infant formulas with hydrolyzed proteins, peptides and free amino acids.

With regular infant formulas, the proteins already present in the product are able to sufficiently stabilize the emulsion, but this is not the case with hydrolyzed formulas, which call for surfactants to aid stability. It seems unfortunate that babies who are already allergic, are being fed substances that further damage the intestinal tract and make them prone to additional food allergies and autoimmunity.

What are some of the ingredient names of food additives on nutrition labels?

Most processed foods will contain one type, but usually combinations of surfactants, which are used in large amounts. This is an under-realized validation for consuming an all-natural, whole/real foods diet as a part of the treatment and prevention of autoimmunity.

Based on the clear evidence that food surfactants increase intestinal permeability, and knowing that intestinal permeability is a major player in the development of autoimmunity, it makes sense to minimize exposure to synthetic food surfactants. The best way to minimize or avoid these ingredients is to choose a simple, whole/real foods diet.

When reading labels, food surfactants come under many names, which can seem innocent enough.  They include but are not limited to (1):

  • Sorbitan esters of fatty acids
  • Polysorbates 20, 40, 60 & 80
  • Mono-and di-glycerides of fatty acids
  • Sucrose esters
  • Polyglycerol esters of fatty acids
  • Glyceryl monostearate
  • Propylene glycol monostearate

Intestinal permeability, along with genetic susceptibility, antigen exposure and a miscommunication between innate and adaptive immunity are proposed ingredients for autoimmunity. It appears that all of these factors must be present for autoimmunity to exist. Since intestinal permeability can be increased by a variety of environmental factors, it seems the most modifiable of the factors, besides avoiding food antigens (provided they can be identified).

Using diet, what is the best way to prevent leaky gut?

Prevention and treatment of Leaky Gut Syndrome, which can lead to the prevention and treatment of autoimmunity has a few steps.

First, eat a balanced whole/real foods diet and avoidance of synthetic food surfactants; identifying and avoiding food antigens (elimination diet in combination with food sensitivity testing such as MRT, ALCAT or ELISA-ACT).

Second, treating dysbiosis by eradicating pathogenic bacteria and supplementing with condition-specific probiotic strains at therapeutic doses, and  preventing dysbiosis via appropriate duration of breastfeeding in infants as well as including cultured foods in the diet

Third, eating and supplementing with gut healing nutrients such as zinc, antioxidants (Vitamins A, C and E), fish oil and the amino acid glutamine

Fourth, lead a gut-friendly lifestyle which includes sleeping well, exercising and effectively managing stress levels. The latter, although easily taken for granted, should not be underestimated or forgotten from a gut-healing regimen.

Hands down, the best way to go about treating Leaky Gut Syndrome and therefore, autoimmunity, is to work with a qualified practitioner who can guide you along the path to restoration in a systematic and integrative manner.

Physicians and Registered Dietitians trained in functional medicine are often open to and knowledgeable about nutritional and herbal supplements. If you are interested in these kinds of complimentary therapies, finding a practitioner(s) who is trained in functional medicine can be very worthwhile.

Questions for your doctor:

  • Will you run food sensitivity testing (MRT, ALCAT or ELISA-ACT) to determine what food sensitivities I may have?
  • If I proceed with a food sensitivity test and an elimination diet, will you help me to adjust my other treatments as a results of the changes (hopefully improvements) that come from a diet adjustment?
  • If you do not wish to run the tests, will you partner with a functional medicine health provider who will?

1)     Csáki, Katalin F (2011) Synthetic surfactant food additives can cause intestinal barrier dysfunction. Medical Hypotheses, Volume 76, Issue 5, May 2011, Pages 676–681.
2)    Hasenhuettl GL, Hartel RW, editors. Food emulsifiers and their applications. New York: Springer; 2008.


About the Author
Angie King-Nosseir MS, RD is an Integrative and Functional Registered Dietitian, with a passion for walking with people along their path toward health transformation. Angie has a Master’s degree in Nutrition, is a Certified LEAP Therapist, corporate wellness health coach, freelance nutrition and wellness writer, and certified yoga instructor. She is trained in Functional Nutrition and Medicine through the Institute for Functional Medicine and in Food as Medicine through the Center for Mind-Body Medicine.

This blog post was originally published by, written by Angie King-Nosseir, and first published on Dec 22, 2014.

This post contains the opinions of the author. Autoimmune Association is not a medical practice and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is your responsibility to seek diagnosis, treatment, and advice from qualified providers based on your condition and particular circumstances. Autoimmune Association does not endorse nor recommend any products, practices, treatment methods, tests, physicians, service providers, procedures, clinical trials, opinions or information available on this website. Your use of the website is subject to our Privacy Policy.

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