PARIS, France — A new study is warning about another harmful ingredient in ultra-processed foods, or junk food. Researchers find that consuming products rich in certain additives elevates the risk of heart disease. Conducted by French researchers, the study followed a group of nearly 100,000 participants, predominantly female, and discovered that those with higher intakes of “E number” additives were at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD).
While the authors of the study emphasize the need for further research, they also reinforced existing public health advice to “limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods” for better health.
The research examined the relationship between the consumption of highly processed foods containing emulsifiers — a subset of E numbers — and the incidence of cardiovascular diseases. Emulsifiers are commonly used in various processed foods like pastries, cakes, ice creams, chocolates, bread, margarine, and ready-to-eat meals. These additives improve texture, flavor, and shelf life, making the products both appealing and affordable but generally less healthy.
The E number emulsifiers in question are found in thousands of widely consumed products, thus making their health implications critically significant. These emulsifiers include celluloses, mono and diglycerides of fatty acids, modified starches, lecithins, carrageenans, phosphates, gums, and pectins. Some recent studies have indicated that emulsifiers can disturb gut bacteria and promote inflammation, potentially increasing susceptibility to cardiovascular issues.
To delve deeper into this connection, the French research team, led by biomedical expert Dr. Bernard Srour, analyzed data from 95,442 French adults who participated in the NutriNet-Santé cohort study between 2009 and 2021. Nearly four in five participants were women, with an average age of 43. Participants filled out between three and 21 24-hour online dietary records during the first two years of the study. Food additives were identified using brand-level matching against three databases, and laboratory tests provided quantitative data.
Major CVD events like heart attacks or strokes reported by participants were verified by an expert committee through a review of medical records. Deaths related to CVD were also recorded, and multiple factors such as age, sex, weight, educational level, family history, smoking, physical activity levels, and diet quality were considered.
The team found that higher intake of certain emulsifiers, like total celluloses (E460-E468) and carboxymethylcellulose (E466), was associated with elevated risks of CVD and coronary heart disease specifically. The study also identified increased risks associated with other specific emulsifiers.
While acknowledging limitations such as the skewed gender ratio, higher educational background, and more health-conscious behavior of the study group compared to the general French population, the authors note that the large sample size and comprehensive adjustments for influential factors lend weight to their findings.
Given the widespread use of these food additives in thousands of ultra-processed products, these findings could have a considerable public health impact.
“The study can contribute to the re-evaluation of regulations around food additive usage in the food industry to protect consumers,” says Dr. Srour, a Nutritional Epidemiology scientist at Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, in a media release. “Meanwhile, several public health authorities recommend limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods as a way of limiting exposure to non-essential controversial food additives.”
The study is published in The BMJ.
South West News Service writer James Gamble contributed to this report.
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