Researchers have developed a new compound that may help reduce people's appetite and prevent weight gain, according to a new study.
In the study of 60 people, those who sprinkled a powder containing this compound on their food every day were less likely to gain weight over a 6-month period compared with people in a control group.
"We believe that this is the first time that a new food ingredient has been demonstrated to have a long-term impact on body weight," said study author Gary Frost, a professor at the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London.
The new compound includes propionate, a compound found in the body that stimulates the gut to release hormones that tell the brain to reduce the feeling of hunger. Propionate is produced naturally when microbes ferment fiber in the human gut.
The powder supplement that the researchers developed for the study, called inulin-propionate ester (IPE), delivers greater quantities of propionate to the gut than people can acquire just by following their regular diet.
In one experiment in the study, 20 people were given either the propionate supplement (IPE) or inulin, a dietary fiber, and then were allowed to eat as much as they wanted from a buffet. The people who consumed the propionate (IPE) supplement ate 14 percent less and had higher levels of appetite-suppressing hormones in their blood, compared with those who were given inulin. [Lose Weight Smartly: 7 Little-Known Tricks That Shave Pounds]
The researchers also tested the supplement on a group of 60 overweight people between ages 40 and 65. Half of the people were given the propionate supplement as a powder to add to their food daily, and the other half were given inulin, for 24 weeks. Both groups were asked to eat and exercise as they normally did before the onset of the study.
Of the 25 people in the propionate group who completed the study, one person gained more than 3 percent in body weight, compared with six of the 24 people in the inulin group who completed the study.
At the end of the study period, the people in the propionate group also had less abdominal fat and fat in their livers on average, compared with the people in the inulin group.
It is not clear how the new supplement might suppress appetite, but the most likely mechanism is that it acts on the vagus nerve in the gut, which signals fullness, Frost said. (The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, and extends from the brain to the abdomen.)
A person would have to consume huge amounts of natural fiber to experience the appetite-reducing effects that propionate provides, the researchers said. Moreover, the investigators "are unaware of a fiber that will specifically produce propionate," Frost said.
The new study was published Wednesday (Dec. 10) in the journal Gut.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.