In physiological conditions, the gut is heavily infiltrated with various subsets of inflammatory cells, whose activity is tightly controlled by counter-regulatory mechanisms. Defects in such mechanisms can favour the development of chronic intestinal disorders, such as Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC), the principal forms of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) in humans, as well as systemic disorders. Over the last years, the frequency of intestinal and systemic immune-inflammatory disorders has increased in previously low incidence areas, likely due to the Westernization of lifestyles, including dietary habits. The Western diet is characterized by high consumption of proteins, saturated fats and sweets, as well as by a broad use of food additives (e.g., emulsifiers, bulking agents), which are used to preserve and enhance food quality. Accumulating evidence suggests that food additives can perturb gut homeostasis, thereby contributing to promote tissue-damaging inflammatory responses. For instance, mice given the emulsifiers carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate 80 develop dysbiosis with overgrowth of mucus-degrading bacteria. Such an effect triggers colitis in animals deficient in either interleukin-10, a cytokine exerting anti-inflammatory and regulatory functions, or Toll-like receptor 5, a receptor recognizing the bacterial flagellin. Similarly, the polysaccharide maltodextrin induces endoplasmic reticulum stress in intestinal goblet cells, thereby impairing mucus release and increasing host susceptibility to colitis. In this review, we report and discuss the current knowledge about the impact of food additives on gut homeostasis and their potential contribution to the development of inflammatory disorders.
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