Cooking oil can wreck your gut, cause inflammatory bowel disease

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UC Riverside-led mouse study reports diets high in soybean oil decrease endocannabinoids in the gut and can lead to colitis.

High consumption of soybean oil has been linked to multiple health issues including obesity and diabetes and potentially autism, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, and depression. Recent research has added ulcerative colitis to this growing list. Ulcerative colitis is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) characterized by chronic inflammation of the large intestine.

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, examined the gut of mice that were consistently fed a diet high in soybean oil for up to 24 weeks in the lab. They found beneficial bacteria decreased and harmful bacteria (specifically, adherent invasive Escherichia coli) increased — conditions that can lead to colitis.

Soybean oil is the most commonly used edible oil in the United States and is increasingly being used in other countries, particularly Brazil, China, and India. In the U.S., soybean production took off in the 1970s for use as animal feed; a byproduct of the increasing trend in growth was soybean oil. Soybeans, a good source of protein, are easy and cheap to grow.

“Our work challenges the decades-old thinking that many chronic diseases stem from the consumption of excess saturated fats from animal products, and that, conversely, unsaturated fats from plants are necessarily more healthful,” said Poonamjot Deol, an assistant professional researcher in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology and a co-corresponding author on the paper published on July 3 in Gut Microbes, an open access journal.

A diet high in soybean oil is found to encourage the growth of harmful bacteria such as adherent invasive E. coli in the gut. Credit: Sladek lab, UC Riverside

“While our bodies need 1-2% of linoleic acid daily, based on the paleodiet, Americans today are getting 8-10% of their energy from linoleic acid daily, most of it from soybean oil,” she said. “Excessive linoleic acid negatively affects the gut microbiome.”

Soybean oil is currently the most highly consumed cooking oil in the U.S. Credit: Stan Lim, UC Riverside

Deol and her co-authors found that a diet high in soybean oil encourages the growth of adherent invasive E. coli in the gut. This bacterium uses linoleic acid as a source of carbon to meet its nutritional demands. Further, several beneficial bacteria in the gut are not able to withstand linoleic acid and die off, which results in harmful bacteria growing out. Adherent invasive E. coli has been identified in humans to cause IBD.

“It’s the combination of good bacteria dying off and harmful bacteria growing out that makes the gut more susceptible to inflammation and its downstream effects,” Deol said. “Further, linoleic acid causes the intestinal epithelial barrier to become porous.”

The barrier function of the intestinal epithelium is critical for maintaining a healthy gut; when disrupted, it can lead to increased permeability or leakiness. Toxins can then leak out of the gut and enter the bloodstream, greatly increasing the risk of infections and chronic inflammatory conditions, such as colitis. The researchers note that the increase in IBD parallels the increase in soybean oil consumption in the U.S. and hypothesize the two may be linked.

Toxicologist Frances M. Sladek, a professor of cell biology and a co-corresponding author on the research paper, recalled that heart disease was linked to saturated fats in the late 1950s.

“Since studies showed that saturated fats can be unhealthy, it was assumed that all unsaturated fats are healthy,” she said. “But there are different types of unsaturated fats, some of which are healthful. For example, the unsaturated fat fish oil is well known to have many beneficial health effects. People, therefore, assumed that soybean oil is perfectly safe and healthier to consume than other types of oils, without actually doing a direct comparison as we have done.”

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