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From left, Sally V. Irwin, Peter Fisher, Emily Graham, Adriel Robidoux, Ashley Malek and Richard Allen.

Food preservatives may be harmful to beneficial bacteria in the human body, according to a study at University of Hawaiʻi Maui College.

The study focused on beneficial or “good” bacteria naturally found in the human microbiome.

These bacteria are also found in fermented products rich in probiotics, such as yogurt, kimchee and kombucha. Numerous studies have indicated their benefits to immune response, diet quality, metabolic profiles and overall health.

The research found that sulfites in food preservatives killed or inhibited the growth of the good bacteria when tested at levels generally regarded as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

UH Maui College students Emily Graham, Ashley Malek and Adriel Robidoux, Lecturer Peter Fisher and lead researcher Professor Sally V. Irwin, published the study on the effects of a common food preservative on beneficial bacteria that are found in fermented foods and the human gut.

Food preservatives effect on beneficial bacteria

Irwin, who is also an adjunct professor in the cell and molecular biology department at UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine, said increasing evidence shows a direct correlation between diseases and alterations in the human gut and mouth microbiomes. Food preservatives may be partly to blame.

“As a geneticist and a professor of microbiology, I have been interested in the human genome and microbes, and their combined influence on human disease and health,” Irwin said.

“Studies show a significant increase over the past 40 years in food allergies, obesity and metabolic disorders that have a direct correlation to disbiosis, or changes in the microbiome.”

“In trying to understand what in our environment may be causing this change, the use of many food preservatives and their effects on beneficial bacteria came to mind.”

Irwin said overuse and misuse of antibiotics has been indicated as having a significant impact on our microbiome, but this is the first time food preservatives have been tested for their effects on beneficial bacteria.

“This is the best education I can give to future scientists,” Irwin said.

“It has been exciting and incredibly satisfying for me and the students to present a significant piece of research that others in the scientific community can build upon.”

To learn more see the complete news release from UH Maui College.

—By Kit Furukawa

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