It's found in everything from ice cream to toothpaste.

Jillian Kramer

Photo: Nattapol Sritongcom / EyeEm / Getty Images

By now, you've heard gut health is important: A healthy gut can help you lose or maintain weight, improve your heart health, boost your immunity and much more. Unfortunately, our diets don't always aid in gut health. A new study underscores that fact, showing that a common food additive can cause serious harm to crucial gut microbiota.

("Gut microbiota" means the billions of different bacteria that inhabit our guts.)

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, examines how "food additive E171" (aka titanium dioxide nanoparticles) affects the gut microbiota of mice. Researchers chose to look at titanium dioxide because it is increasingly common in food and medicine: It's found in everything from mayonnaise to ice cream, cheese, vitamins, toothpaste and more. (Check products' ingredients labels for E171, titanium dioxide or TiO2; if a product contains titanium dioxide, the FDA requires manufacturers to list the additive as an ingredient-except in hair dyes.)

At the same time, diseases such as dementia, autoimmune diseases, cancer metastasis, eczema, asthma and autism have been linked to the use of nanoparticles, making the study of E171's effects on our gut microbiota even more important, the researchers state.

"It is well established that dietary composition has an impact on physiology and health, yet the role of food additives is poorly understood," Wojciech Chrzanowski, Ph.D., D.Sc., study co-author and associate professor at the University of Sydney's School of Pharmacy and Sydney Nano Institute, said in a press release. "There is increasing evidence that continuous exposure to nanoparticles has an impact on gut microbiota composition, and since gut microbiota is a gatekeeper of our health, any changes to its function have an influence on overall health."

In their study, the researchers found that E171 did interact negatively with mice's gut bacteria and impaired their function-which could lead to the development of diseases.

"This study investigated effects of titanium dioxide on gut health in mice and found that it did not change the composition of gut microbiota, but instead it affected bacteria activity and promoted their growth in a form of undesired biofilm. Biofilms are bacteria that stick together, and the formation of biofilm has been reported in diseases such as colorectal cancer," Laurence Macia, Ph.D., study co-author and associate professor at the University of Sydney, explained in the press release. The researchers recommended that E171 be more regulated by food authorities both in their native Australia and globally, such as by the FDA in the U.S.

But until that happens, you can take steps to reduce your consumption of E171 by avoiding food products that list it (or its other moniker, titanium dioxide) on their food labels. And if you can't find must-have products without it, consider making your own-like this easy three-step mayonnaise, or these healthy homemade ice creams and frozen yogurts.

You can also take steps to protect your gut by eating foods with prebiotics and probiotics, and encouraging the growth of good gut bacteria by curbing your use of antibiotics and more.

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