London: High intake of industrially processed and packaged foods may raise risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) due to the increased presence of several emulsifiers used to improve texture and extend shelf-life, warned a study.
Given that these food additives are used ubiquitously in thousands of widely consumed ultra-processed food products, these findings have important public health implications, said the researchers from Universite Sorbonne Paris Nord and Universite Paris Cite in France.
Emulsifiers are often added to processed and packaged foods such as pastries, cakes, ice cream, desserts, chocolate, bread, margarine and ready meals, to enhance their appearance, taste, texture and shelf life. They include celluloses, mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, modified starches, lecithins, carrageenans (derived from red seaweed; used to thicken foods), phosphates, gums and pectins.
As with all food additives, the safety of emulsifiers is regularly assessed based on the available scientific evidence, yet some recent research suggests that emulsifiers can disrupt gut bacteria and increase inflammation, leading to potentially increased susceptibility to cardiovascular problems.
The findings could “contribute to the re-evaluation of regulations around food additive usage in the food industry to protect consumers,” the researchers said.
Meanwhile it is also “recommended limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods as a way of limiting exposure to non-essential controversial food additives,” they added.
In the study, published by The BMJ, the team examined 95,442 French adults with no history of heart disease between 2009 and 2021. The findings showed an increased risk with part of the ‘E numbers’ group of food additives.
After an average follow-up of 7 years, higher intake of total celluloses (E460-E468), cellulose (E460) and carboxymethylcellulose (E466) were found to be positively associated with higher risks of CVD and specifically coronary heart disease.
Higher intakes of monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471 and E472) were associated with higher risks of all studied outcomes.
Among these emulsifiers, lactic ester of monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids (E472b) was associated with higher risks of CVD and cerebrovascular diseases, and citric acid ester of monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids (E472c) was associated with higher risks of CVD and coronary heart disease.
High intake of trisodium phosphate (E339) was also associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
There was no evidence of an association between the other studied emulsifiers and any of the cardiovascular outcomes, the researchers said.
This is a single observational study, so can’t establish the cause, and the researchers acknowledge some study limitations such as the high proportion of women, higher educational background, and overall more health conscious behaviours.