A comprehensive French study has identified a potential link between emulsifiers, commonly used food additives, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Emulsifiers are substances employed to maintain the stability of mixtures of oils and water, thus extending the shelf life of processed foods. They are commonly found in mayonnaise, margarine, ice cream, salad dressings, peanut butter, cookies, sauces, baked goods, and numerous other prepackaged and processed food items.
Published in The BMJ, the study delved into the role of emulsifiers, which are among the most frequently utilized food additives, including starches, lecithin, xanthan gum, and pectin. It is estimated that over half of industrially processed foods contain at least one emulsifier.
While processed foods, in general, have been associated with higher risks of obesity, cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer, and overall mortality, the researchers led by Bernard Srour from Université Sorbonne Paris Nord and Université Paris Cité found that the specific use of emulsifiers in processed foods had an impact on the risk of developing CVD. Although the study did not establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between emulsifiers and CVD, the scientists argued that their investigation highlighted the need for stricter food regulations to safeguard consumers.
“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,” they stated. “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 prospective study was based on data from the French NutriNet-Santé cohort collected between 2009 and 2021. It involved more than 95,000 adults, mostly women, with an average age of 43.1 years, all of whom were free of baseline CVD. After a seven-year follow-up, the researchers observed a higher risk of coronary heart disease associated with several types of emulsifiers.
It is important to note certain limitations of the study, including the fact that the majority of participants (79%) were women, and the group had a high level of education. Additionally, the researchers could not account for emulsifiers present in non-labeled foods, such as bakery items, which the study subjects could not quantify and report.
The authors emphasized the need for their findings to be replicated in other large-scale studies but suggested that they could contribute to a reevaluation of regulations regarding the usage of food additives in the food industry, with a focus on consumer protection.