Industrialised food additives raise autoimmune disease risk: Review

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Additives have been implemented in the raised risk of developing autoimmune diseases in the Western hemisphere. (©
Additives have been implemented in the raised risk of developing autoimmune diseases in the Western hemisphere. (©

Related tags Food additives Ulcerative colitis Food processing

The expanding use of industrialised food additives could raise the risk of developing autoimmune diseases (AD), say Israeli and German researchers.

The findings confirm the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) verdict that regular consumption of processed meat products does cause cancer.

cured meat, charcuterie
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) verdict stated that regular consumption of processed meat products caused cancer. (©

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) - the cancer agency of WHO - concluded back in October 2015 that a 50 g portion of processed meat – which includes cured meats, sausages, bacon and other prepared meat snacks – eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

Lead researchers Dr Aaron Lerner and Dr Torsten Matthias reviewed past and current research on the functions, mechanisms and abnormalities of intestinal permeability and the relationship between food additives and their harmful effects.

They put forward the hypothesis that increased intestinal permeability brought on by the industrial food additives was causing the surge in autoimmune disease (AD).

Studies that show a rise in AD across westernised societies over the last thirty years makes for compelling evidence. Multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes​,​ and inflammatory bowel diseases​ (mainly Crohn's disease), are the main examples of AD. Less well known ADs include lupus,​ primary biliary cirrhosis, autoimmune thyroiditis, hepatitis​and rheumatic diseases​.

Additive overload

Glucose, salt, emulsifiers, organic solvents, gluten, microbial transglutaminase, and nanoparticles are extensively and increasingly used by the food industry mainly to improve the taste and shelf-life of food.

The role of the human intestinal system in AD has been extensively researched, as have additives as a cause for increased permeability in the human intestinal system. Its role is also a common trait observed studies looking into multiple autoimmune diseases.

Researchers detailed findings​ that revealed the mean increase in availability of sugar and sweeteners (kcal/person/day) during the last 4 decades, around the Mediterranean and in Central Europe increased 145 and 123% respectively.

Countries that traditionally had the highest adherence to the Mediterranean diet (typified by less processed foods, fewer calories and higher fibre) like Greece, experienced the greatest fall (63%) in the Mediterranean adequacy index, consuming ever increasing amounts of energy-dense and sweet products. A comparable decrease was depicted in other Mediterranean countries and in Central Europe.

Similarly, salt was identified as a ‘silent killer’​ as its consumption is associated with hypertension, strokes, obesity, and stomach cancer.

mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet has gradually been replaced by ever increasing amounts of energy-dense and sweet products. (©

In European and Northern American countries, sodium intake is dominated by sodium added in manufactured foods (approximately 75% of intake). Cereals and baked goods are the single largest contributor to dietary sodium intake in UK and US adults.

“On the face of it, a voluntary decrease in salt consumption seems to be an easy policy to implement, but good sense and good health face the formidable opposing forces of flavour, habit, and culture,” ​the authors commented.

Growing emulsifier market

The effect emulsifiers in Europe was also evaluated. Researchers acknowledged that the global food emulsifier market was a fastest growing segment within the food ingredients market due to the growing trend towards reducing fat content in food products.

“The emulsifier market is largely driven by di-glycerides and derivatives, lecithin, stearoyl lactylates, and other emulsifiers such as polyglycerol esters (PGE), polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR), polysorbate and sucrose esters,”​ the review noted.

“In terms of application, bakery items have been dominant, although research in various fields has opened up new avenues for the application of these substitutes.”

According to an industry report by website MarketResearch, the food emulsifier market will grow from an estimated $2.1bn (€1.9bn) in 2012 to $2.9bn (€2.7bn) by 2018 - an increase of 35%. The global food emulsifier market is expected to reach 933.4 KT by 2018, due to increasing demand for emulsifiers.

“Although, causality has not been proven, increases in the usage of food additives have paralleled increased incidences and prevalences of AD during the last decades,”​ concluded the researchers.

“As a consequence, individuals with non-modifiable risk factors (i.e. familial autoimmunity or carrying shared autoimmune genes) should consider decreased exposure to some food additives in order to avoid increasing their risk of AD.”


Source: Autoimmunity Reviews, Volume 14, Issue 6, June 2015, Pages 479–489

Published online ahead of print:

“Changes in intestinal tight junction permeability associated with industrial food additives explain the rising incidence of autoimmune disease”

Authors: Lerner A. Matthias T.

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1 comment

Food Additives and Autoimmune Disease

Posted by Lucille Cholerton,

In future I hope the researchers will concentrate on the links between gluten (as in wheat, rye, oats and barley) and autoimmunity. Many autoimmune disorders have been linked with gluten. This is a major problem for the Western world as the Western diet is virtually based on wheat.

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