Corkey, an obesity researcher at Boston University School of Medicine, recently began exploring the role that food additives may play in America’s obesity and diabetes epidemic.
Q. What makes you think there’s something more to the obesity epidemic than eating too much and exercising too little?
‘I start out with cells. And I ask, for a fat cell: Are any of the things in our environment making this fat cell store more fat?’
A. If you think about obesity leading to diabetes, there has to be too much eating, however, we eat when we feel hungry and we stop when we feel full. That used to work and now it doesn’t.
Q. And that question brought you to food additives?
A. I was amazed at the thousands of new things that our bodies are being exposed to. Some of them are intentional like preservatives. Some of them are inadvertent like the plastic wrap our food comes in. Some of them not even expected, such as the drugs animals are given to make them grow better, and the pesticides and fertilizers we use. And interestingly almost none of it has been tested. That’s what my motivation is: it’s to try to solve this problem but by putting more focus on the things that nobody’s looked at very carefully. And less focus on the things that everybody focuses on that don’t work [like dieting].
Q. As a basic scientist, how do you go about doing that?
A. I start out with cells. And I ask, for a fat cell: Are any of the things in our environment making this fat cell store more fat? If we find things, I’d like to look at what combinations of these things do. I can [also] feed this to animals. I can make them get obese, and ask whether any of these compounds I’ve identified have any effect on their fat.
Q. You’re suggesting that our environment is playing a major role in making us fat, and maybe sick as well?
A. There’s a whole group of common diseases that are increasing over the same time-frame as diabetes: autism, allergies, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, asthma. The prevalence suggests that there are some thing or things affecting a lot of different systems. If something screws up insulin secretion in the beta cell, does that same thing screw up fat storage in a fat cell and glucose handling in the liver and appetite in the brain? All these signals should be related.
Q. Your research is still in its early stages, but have you found any potential culprits so far?
A. What I don’t want to do is give people the message “stop eating this because of what I’ve found” – because [my research has] not gone far enough. Having said that, we’ve done a fair amount of work with saccharine and other artificial sweeteners and [certain] emulsifiers and preservatives.
Q. And iron, right?
A. Iron has increased in our diet as the leanness of our meat has increased. And there are some links between iron and diabetes. Is it a real problem? I don’t know. Would I advise people not to eat iron? Absolutely not, because without it you’ve got an even bigger problem.
Q. Any others?
A. Those are the things we’ve studied up to now. We’re just starting testing 20 more compounds that have effects on insulin secretion.
Q. Has this research changed the way you live your own life?
A. I do not buy processed food. I do not eat any flour or rice or pasta. I like to cook, so it’s not so hard. I try to buy things with non-additives, organic, animals that haven’t had antibiotics. I’m not advising others to do that, it’s just I’m a little bit more comfortable starting from scratch and having as little alien material as possible.