Israeli and German researchers maintain that industrialized food additives may raise the risk of developing autoimmune diseases, a finding that comes soon after the World Health Organization’s announcement that eating excessive amounts of processed foods raises the risk of cancer.
The meta-analysis was led by Prof. Aaron Lerner of the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine of Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Carmel Medical Center and Dr. Torsten Matthias of the Aesku-Kipp Institute in Germany.
Their study was recently published in Autoimmune Reviews.
The scientists argue that processed foods weaken the intestine’s resistance to bacteria, toxins and other hostile nutritional and non-nutritional elements.
This increases the likelihood of developing autoimmune diseases, in which the body’s immune system attacks cells, tissues or organs as if they were foreign bodies. The researchers examined the effects of processed food on the intestines and on the development of autoimmune diseases – more than 100 of which have been identified, including type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune hepatitis, Crohn’s disease, scleroderma and myesthenia gravis.
Lerner noted, “In recent decades there has been a decrease in incidence of infectious diseases, but at the same time there has been an increase in the incidence of allergic diseases, cancer and autoimmune diseases. Since the weight of genetic changes is insignificant in such a short period, the scientific community is searching for the causes at the environmental level.”
Asked by The Jerusalem Post to comment, Prof. Itamar Grotto – the Health Ministry’s public health chief – said that the findings were based on in-vitro (lab) studies and not epidemiological studies on humans. “Some of the additives, such as glucose and sodium, are natural, and some are indeed industrial and artificial. We know that consuming [a lot of] processed foods is not recommended.”
Grotto also responded to the researcher’s recommendation that patients with a family background of autoimmune diseases should consider avoiding processed foods, saying that it is “a matter of jumping to conclusions.”
In their study, the researchers focused on the significant increase in the use of industrial food additives aimed at improving qualities such as taste, smell, texture and shelf life, and found a “significant circumstantial connection between the increased use of processed foods and the increase in the incidence of autoimmune diseases.”
Many autoimmune diseases result from damage to the functioning of the “tight junctions” that protect the intestinal mucosa, the researchers said. When functioning normally, tight junctions serve as a barrier against bacteria, toxins, allergens and carcinogens, protecting the immune system from them. Damage to the tight junctions (also known as “leaky gut”) leads to the development of autoimmune diseases.
The researchers found that at least seven common food additives weaken the tight-junctions – glucose (sugars), sodium (salt), fat solvents (emulsifiers), organic acids, gluten, microbial transglutaminase (a special enzyme that serves as food protein “glue”) and nanometric particles.
“Control and enforcement agencies such as the FDA stringently supervise the pharmaceutical industry, but the food additive market remains unsupervised enough,” said Lerner.
“We hope this study and similar studies increase awareness about the dangers inherent in industrial food additives and raise awareness about the need for control over them.”