Diabetes and obesity risk increased by common food ingredient

Propionate is a food ingredient that is used in baked goods, animal feeds, and artificial flavorings. It is short-chain fatty acid that is naturally occurring and helps to prevent mold from forming on foods.

A recent study published in Science Translational Medicine led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in collaboration with researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Sheba Medical Center in Israel, indicated that propionate can trigger metabolic events that lead to insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia. Propionate appears to increase levels of several hormones that are associated with increased risk of obesity and diabetes.

The study included human subjects (14) and mice, and in mice, continuing exposure to propionate resulted in weight gain and insulin resistance. In mice, it rapidly activated the sympathetic nervous system, leading to an increase in several hormones including glucagon, norepinephrine, and a newly discovered gluconeogenic hormone called fatty acid-binding protein 4 (FABP4).

In the human subjects, meals containing propionate led to significant increases in norepinephrine as well as increases in glucagon and FABP4.

The findings of this study indicate that propionate may act as a “metabolic disruptor” and may increase the risk of diabetes and obesity in humans.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes Propionate as being safe. It is approved for use as a food additive in the EU, USA and Australia and New Zealand. In Europe it is listed as E281 and as INS number 281 elsewhere.

See Study in Science Translational Medicine:
Tirosh A, Calay ES, Tuncman G, et al. The short-chain fatty acid propionate increases glucagon and FABP4 production, impairing insulin action in mice and humans. Sci Transl Med. 2019;11(489):eaav0120. doi:10.1126/SCITRANSLMED.AAV0120

Harvard School of Public Health