Do food additives have an impact on behavior?

Food additives are already known to be bad for our health, but they could also disrupt the gut microbiota and have an impact on behavior, according to a recent study. This hypothesis could very well lead us to reconsider our dietary habits.

Created 16 April 2019
Updated 27 December 2021

About this article

Created 16 April 2019
Updated 27 December 2021

They have taken over supermarket shelves and are now impossible to avoid! With their unpronounceable code names, food additives are a manufacturer’s dream: they use and abuse them to improve food texture or as preservatives. Studies in mice have however shown their harmfulness: carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) and polysorbate 80 (P80) alter the composition of the gut microbiota and lead to low-grade chronic gut inflammation that promotes the development of metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes mellitus.

Differences between males and females

Curious to know whether these frequently-used emulsifiers had an impact on the brain and the behavior of rodents, the American team who first published these results pursued their work. For 12 weeks, the researchers added CMC or P80 to the drinkable water given to mice subjected to several biological, physiological and behavioral tests. The results not only confirmed the findings from the first study, but they also showed that males and females did not react equally to food emulsifiers. Although all rodents presented a disrupted gut microbiota composition, the impact was different depending on sex.

Anxious males, less sociable females

The consumption of emulsifiers also led to behavioral changes, which were also different based on gender. While males showed signs of anxiety, females became less sociable. The authors are not able to explain these variations yet, but they believe that microbiota disruptions have an impact on behavior through the gut-brain axis. If this hypothesis was confirmed in humans, it might explain how processed food is the cause of many psychological and behavioral disorders observed nowadays.

Old sources


Holder MK, Peters NV, Whylings J, et al. Dietary emulsifiers consumption alters anxiety-like and social related behaviors in mice in a sex-dependent manner. Scientific Reports. 2019 ; 9:172 

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