Compound may help prevent diabetes in fast-food fans

03/07/05

SAN DIEGO, March 15 — A new finding could soon benefit people who regularly eat fast-foods that are high in fat. Chemists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture report they have identified a form of soluble cellulose that, if added to high-fat food items, appears to slow down fat absorption to a healthier rate and reduce the likelihood of developing insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. The preliminary animal study was described today at the 229th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.

Called HPMC (hydroxypropylmethylcellulose), the cellulose-derivative has been used for half-a-century as an additive in many foods and drugs, mostly to provide texture, but the researchers believe this is the first study to demonstrate its potential as a functional food ingredient. HPMC, which is tasteless and odorless, could one day be added to hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs and other high-fat foods as a novel line of defense against diabetes, which is on the rise in this country, the researchers say.

If the findings prove true in human studies, it could benefit young people, who tend to be frequent consumers of high-fat fast-foods. Although HPMC isn't likely to prevent obesity, the compound may reduce the chances that obese people will develop diabetes and its deadly complications, particularly heart disease, the researchers note. This study was funded by the USDA.

"Obviously, the less fat you eat, the better off you are. But if you're going to eat high fat foods, then adding HPMC to it might help limit the damage," says Wallace H. Yokoyama, Ph.D., a research chemist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Albany, Calif. "In our studies with hamsters, adding HPMC to the animals' high-fat diet prevented development of insulin resistance."

The compound could actually make its way into food products as a functional food additive within one to two years, he estimates. Human studies are anticipated.

Over a four-week period, Yokoyama's research team fed a group of hamsters a high-fat diet — about 38 percent of calories derived from fat — similar to the fat content of typical American fast-food diets. Results were then compared to a group of animals that were fed a low-fat (11 percent fat-derived calories) diet. As expected, the animals fed the high-fat diets developed insulin resistance, but the animals fed the low-fat diet did not. But when soluble cellulose in the form of HPMC was substituted for the insoluble fiber normally found in the high-fat diets and then fed to another group of test animals over the same period, it prevented insulin resistance, according to the researchers.

Using special analytical techniques, the investigative team also studied metabolic changes in the test animals at the genetic level. They found significant differences in gene expression, as measured by messenger RNA changes, between animals that became insulin resistant and those that did not, they say.

Although the exact mechanism by which HPMC works is unclear, Yokoyama believes that it acts as a fat regulator. The compound appears to slow down the absorption of fats — either in the stomach, small intestine, or both — preventing high fat levels from overwhelming the digestive system, he says. The compound also seems to facilitate the normal transport of fat into the adipose tissue, where it is normally stored, he adds.

By contrast, fats that are taken into the body too quickly, as during a fast-food binge, tend to be rapidly shunted to non-adipose tissues such as the liver, heart and pancreas, where they can do extensive damage to cells. Pancreatic damage can lead to diabetes.

HPMC, which is manufactured by Dow Chemical Company, is used in many common food products such as fillings, sauces and glazes, where it usually functions as a texture modifier. Although it constitutes from 0.5 to 1.5 percent of the total ingredients found in individual servings of most of these food products, the researchers say that it will likely be added in higher proportions if used in food as a diabetes-fighter.

Already proven to be safe at lower amounts, the researchers do not anticipate that HPMC will cause any adverse effects at higher amounts. Based on animal studies, the researcher estimates that only a few grams (approximately 5 grams) would be needed to have a positive impact on health. But further studies are needed to determine effective doses, Yokoyama says.

In addition to Yokoyama, other researchers in this study include Qiming Shao and Gerard R. Lazo, also of the Agricultural Research Service; Wei-Shou Hu and Katie Wlaschin, of the University of Minnesota; and Peter M. Nissom and Miranda G.S. Yap, of the Bioprocessing Technology Institute in Singapore.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization, chartered by the U.S. Congress, with a multidisciplinary membership of more than 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers. It publishes numerous scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

— Mark T. Sampson

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