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The Chemical in Breakfast Cereal That Could Be Making You Fat

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The Chemical in Breakfast Cereal That Could Be Making You Fat
One of the chemicals in question is commonly found in some popular breakfast cereals. Photo Credit bhofack2/iStock/GettyImages

Refined sugar and infrequent exercise may not be the only factors contributing to obesity. Some breakfast cereals and processed foods, cookware and seafood could also play a role — if they contain certain chemicals.

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A first-of-its kind study using human stem cells (previous research focused only on animals) has found that three chemicals in particular may interfere with the digestive system’s ability to tell the brain when the body is full, which can lead to overeating and, in extreme cases, weight gain and obesity.

The first of these “endocrine disruptors,” as scientists are calling them is, butylhydroxytoluene (BHT), an antioxidant commonly found in breakfast cereals and other processed foods to keep fats from going rancid. Popular cereals and snacks with BHT as an ingredient include: Kellogg’s Frosted Mini Wheats, Kellogg’s Fruit Loops, Post Shredded Wheat, Nabisco Triscuits and Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn, to name just a few, according to the Environmental Working Group. Past research in animal studies also suggests a link between BHT and increased cancer risk, and the ingredient has been banned in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and throughout Europe.

The second chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is a polymer found in certain cookware — especially nonstick cookware — as well as carpeting and even certain cosmetic and anti-aging products. Thanks to a “stewardship program” put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency, the use of PFOA was reduced substantially by 2015, according to the American Cancer Society.

Finally, tributyltin (TBT) is a compound in paints that can make its way into water and accumulate in seafood — particularly shellfish raised near commercial harbors. It was commonly used as a biocide to prevent marine organisms from growing on the hulls of large ships.

“We discovered that each of these chemicals damaged hormones that communicate between the gut and the brain,” said Dhruv Sareen, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical sciences and director of the Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Core Facility at the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, in ScienceDaily. “When we tested the three together, the combined stress was more robust.”

To conduct the study, researchers took blood samples from participants and converted the blood cells into stem cells. Using the stem cells, the researchers grew epithelium tissue — the tissue that lines the gut — and neuronal tissue, which makes up the hypothalamus region of the brain that controls appetite and metabolism.

After exposing the tissues to these three chemicals — one at a time and then in combination with one another — researchers found that the chemicals disrupted the signaling hormones used to communicate between the tissues. This implies that the brain wouldn’t know when the stomach was full, which would allow overeating (and possibly obesity) to occur. Furthermore, the chemicals impaired the mitochondria in cells, which impact the body’s metabolism. If the mitochondria aren’t functioning properly, the body’s ability to burn calories won’t function optimally either.

Even though some companies, including General Mills, have removed BHT from its food products, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to allow BHT as an ingredient, though it acknowledges that further research should be done. “While no evidence in the available information on BHT demonstrates a hazard to the public when it is used at levels that are now current and in the manner now practiced, uncertainties exist requiring that additional studies should be conducted,” it said.

In the meantime, if you would like to avoid these chemicals, get in the habit of reading ingredient labels, researching cookware brands before buying, checking ingredients in your skin care (and avoiding polyperfluoromethylisopropyl ether, polytetrafluoroethylene, DEA-C8-18 perfluoroalkylethyl phosphate and Teflon on the label, according to SafeCosmetics.org) and sticking to shellfish from reputable sources.

The Environmental Working Group’s food score database and skin deep database are also helpful resources in seeing where your favorite foods and personal care products rank based on ingredient safety.

Read more: 18 Habits That Can Make You Fat

What Do YOU Think?

Will this news prompt you to pay extra attention to ingredient labels? Will you steer clear of BHT or trust the FDA’s decision to let it remain? Tell us in the comments!

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