Trehalose Food Additive May Increase Risk of C. Diff Infections: Study

New research warns that a food additive commonly used in ice cream, chewing gum and other popular products, may play a role in the increasing occurrences of the bacterial infection Clostridium difficile, commonly known as C. diff, which can cause mild to severe side effects. 

In a study published online this week in the journal Nature, a team of researchers from the U.S. and The Netherlands indicate that the food additive Trehalose may be partly responsible for rising reports of C. diff outbreaks across the United States, which have steadily increased since 2000.

Hospital stays due to C. diff infections have steadily risen from 139,000 patients stays in 2000 to 349,000 in 2009. Researchers point out that 2000 was the same year Trehalose was introduced to the market.

Trehalose is a combination of two glucose molecules linked by a glucose bond that is added to certain processed foods and products, including toothpastes, ice cream, breads, hand lotion and chewing gum,  to act as a sweet tasting but stabilizing agent.

The researchers indicate that through laboratory testing on mice, C. diff strains including 027 were found to metabolize traces of trehalose, and when mixed with additional strains could make the bacteria even more virulent. During testing, infected mice with C. diff were found to die much quicker when introduced to even low quantities of trehalose.

Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE of the Yale School of Medicine who peer-reviewed the study stated that despite studies suggesting trehalose plays a role in reducing the rate of fatty liver disease, it is unknown how certain products may impact the millions of bacteria inside of humans, especially C. diff, which could grow more virulent due to trehalose introduction.

C. diff is a bacterium that causes a variety of symptoms in human hosts that range from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon. It is found throughout the environment in soil, water, air, human and animal feces, and food products such as processed meats.

The infection spreads most easily from a lack of unsanitary practices; such as not washing hands and from unclean surfaces that have come in contact with the bacteria. The spores of C. diff can exist for weeks or months on a contaminated surface which could cause many individuals to be subject to the infection.

The infection is mostly common among older adults in hospitals or in long-term care facilities who are within contained quarters of one another with potentially weakened immune systems.

Several studies have found individuals to be at an increased risk of C. diff infections shortly after taking antibiotics or due to heartburn medication side effects.

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