While you probably haven’t heard of carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), you’ve definitely eaten it. As the most widely-used cellulose-based emulsifier in the world, CMC is found in almost every type of processed food. And, unfortunately, new research has connected CMC to a range of negative gastrointestinal symptoms.
What is CMC?
CMC is a stabilizing and thickening agent used in food and nonfood products, including ice cream, milk, fruit juice, toothpaste, detergents, water-based paints, chewing gum, dye, protein drinks, laxatives, and many more processed items. Its use is extensive and fair-reaching, from adding bulk to ketchup to acting as a viscosity modifier in the oil industry.
CMC’s makeup is what has made it so versatile and popular. Considered nontoxic and hypoallergenic, the highly viscous (thickening) substance is derived from cellulose, an organic compound. It easily absorbs/retains water and is clear, tasteless, and colorless. It is known as an emulsifier, a ubiquitous agent used to improve the experience and longevity of food. While it has no nutritional value and cannot be digested by humans, it has long been considered safe to consume.
In fact, CMC has been used in the food industry since the 1960s. It is generally used in the production of baked goods, since its calorie-free and gluten-free. It is also used as a “texture enhancer,” creating a thicker, creamier “taste experience” in many sauces, jams, and even sausages. On labels, CMC may also go by the name of sodium carboxymethyl cellulose or sodium CMC.
The Truth About CMC
Clinical research published in Gastroenterology Journal this past November 2021 found important new insights into the impact of CMC on gut health. In this randomized controlled-feeding study, a group of healthy volunteers were either subjected to a CMC-free diet or a diet with CMCs. Research found that those who consumed CMCs experienced stomach pain, loss of gut bacteria diversity, loss of short-chain fatty acids and amino acids, and symptoms associated with IBD and gut inflammation.
This isn’t the first study to find fault in CMC, or emulsifying agents in general. In 2015, a study published in Nature found a direct connection between dietary emulsifiers and low-grade inflammation, changes in gut microbiota, obesity/metabolic syndrome, and colitis in mice.
The findings of both studies can suggest that the widespread use of emulsifying agents like CMC may directly correlate to the rise in IBD (irritable bowel disease), colon cancer, and chronic inflammatory conditions in human populations. By altering the composition of the gut microbiome and number of metabolites present, these agents cause chronic, lasting detriment to gut function and health.
Beyond suggesting a need to study the effects of CMC and other emulsifiers more extensively, this study “provides a general blueprint to carefully test individual food additives in humans in a well-controlled manner,” according to co-senior author Dr. James Lewis of the University of Pennsylvania. Indeed, this study has highlighted the necessity for large-scale research into the assembly of processed foods, especially components long-believed to be safe and nontoxic, like CMC.
If you are suffering from symptoms of a GI condition, the experienced team of medical professionals at Gastroenterology Health Partners is here for you using the most advanced treatment options available. We strive to provide the highest quality, most cost-effective GI care in the region. For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact Gastroenterology Health Partners today at a location near you.