Emulsifier Food Additives May Increase Heart Disease Risks: Study

Researchers are concerned over the growing reliance on ultra-processed foods in the U.S. and Europe, indicating their study points to widespread health risks

Food additives known as emulsifiers, which are found in highly processed foods, may increase the risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular disease, according to the findings of a new study.

In findings published this month in the medical journal The BMJ, French researchers warn that data points to increasing problems that will result from consumers’ reliance on ultra-processed foods, which use food additive emulsifiers to extend their shelf-life, but may put consumers at a higher risk of health problems than non-processed food.

Emulsifiers are added to processed foods to help combine ingredients that don’t normally mix and prevent them from separating, as well as to improve the texture and lengthen the shelf-life of products. They are among the most commonly used additives in highly-processed foods, and include modified starches, lecithins, xanthan gum, pectins, monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids, carrageenan, and guar gum.

The research was conducted as a follow-up to a 2009 French study, which linked the regular consumption of processed foods to higher risks of obesity, mortality, cancer, heart diseases, and type two diabetes. Researchers reviewed the data of 95,442 adults who were asked to submit at least three reports of the foods and beverages they consumed within 24 hours.

Emulsifier Food Additive Health Risks

According to the data, the most consumed emulsifiers were modified starches, celluloses, sodium bicarbonate, pectins, diphosphates, and monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids. The food additives were most commonly found in dehydrated soups, cakes and biscuits, dairy products, processed potato products, and packaged sauces.

The findings revealed that those surveyed suffered approximately 1,995 cardiovascular disease events between 2009 and 2021, including approximately 1,044 reports of coronary heart disease and approximately 974 reports of cerebrovascular disease events. High consumption of emulsifier food additives were found to contribute to increased risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease, which can lead to heart attacks, blocked arteries, and strokes.

These rates were only slightly higher among those who reported consuming high amounts of emulsifiers than those who did not, but researchers say the implications may be much larger.

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Ultraprocessed Food Health Risks

Ultraprocessed foods are made with industrial ingredients and include food additives, as well as artificial colors and flavors used to extend shelf life. Prior research suggests human bodies may not be equipped to process the artificial additives in ultraprocessed foods.

Eating a diet high in prepackaged, ultraprocessed foods increased the risk of early death from any cause by more than 60%, another previous study found. Research has also indicated consuming ultraprocessed foods may speed up cognitive decline and irritable bowel syndrome.

Researchers estimate that 30-60% of the dietary intake of European and North American adults consists of processed foods.

The findings of a 2021 study found that two-thirds of children’s diets in the United States are made up of ultraprocessed foods. In addition, ultraprocessed foods are more readily available in low-income neighborhoods and greatly reduce the health status of the population in those areas previous research has noted, indicating a focus on improved health diets is important in low-income neighborhoods and beyond.

“Despite the moderate magnitude of the associations, these findings may have important public health implications given that these food additives are used ubiquitously in thousands of widely consumed ultra-processed food products,” the researchers noted. “The results will contribute to the re-evaluation of regulations around food additive usage in the food industry to protect consumers.”

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