You may already know that whole foods pack a much more powerful nutritional punch than do processed foods because of vitamins and fiber lost along the way.

Now a study from Israel and Germany proves that seven commonly added ingredients in processed foods weaken intestinal resistance to bacteria, toxins and other harmful elements. This weakening increases the risk of autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, celiac, lupus, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune hepatitis and Crohn’s, among many others that cause the body to attack its own tissues.

The study was led by Prof. Aaron Lerner, of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Faculty of Medicine and Carmel Medical Center in Haifa, and Dr. Torsten Matthias of the Aesku-Kipp Institute in Germany.

Their results, published recently in Autoimmune Reviews, provide an important clue to the mystery of why the incidence of autoimmune diseases is increasing worldwide and especially in Western countries.

“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,” said Lerner. “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.”

This schematic by Patricia Jeremias shows the sequential steps through which industrial food additives induce autoimmune diseases. Image courtesy of the Technion Spokesperson’s Office
This schematic by Patricia Jeremias shows the sequential steps through which industrial food additives induce autoimmune diseases. Image courtesy of the Technion Spokesperson’s Office

The researchers started out with two known facts: first, that many of the convenience foods Westerners eat are laced with industrial food additives aimed at improving qualities such as taste, smell, texture and shelf life; second, that many autoimmune diseases stem from damage to the tight-junctions that protect the intestinal mucosa.

When functioning normally, tight-junctions serve as a barrier against bacteria, toxins, allergens and carcinogens. In a condition sometimes called “leaky gut,” damaged tight-junctions can lead to the development of autoimmune diseases.

Watch out for these seven additives

Lerner and Matthias therefore decided to examine the effects of processed food on the intestines to see if there is a direct correlation between the increased use of processed foods and the increase in the incidence of autoimmune diseases.

Their study showed circumstantially that at least seven common food additives weaken the tight-junctions: sugars, salt, emulsifiers (used in bakery, confectionary, dairy, fats and oils, sauces, butter and margarine, ice cream, cream liqueurs, meat, coffee, gum, beverages and chocolate), organic solvents (such as hexane, used to produce soy oil, and others added as antioxidants, stabilizers, preservatives and flavorings), gluten, microbial transglutaminase (a food protein “glue” added to processed meat, fish, dairy and bakery items) and nanometric particles (used to improve the taste, color, uniformity and texture of foods, as well as in food packaging).

Lerner said that food additives are not carefully controlled and supervised as are pharmaceuticals. His research suggests that they should be.

“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,” Lerner said.

Meanwhile, the researchers advise patients with autoimmune diseases, and those who have a family background of such diseases, to consider avoiding processed foods whenever possible.

“Major shifts in dietary patterns are continually occurring, even in basic staples consumption towards more diversified and industrially processed food products,” Lerner and Matthias write.

“Living in westernized countries has a strong impact on nutritional patterns collectively termed the ‘Western diet’ including high fat, trans fatty acids, cholesterol, proteins, sugars, salt intake, as well as frequent consumption of processed and ‘fast food.’ … Further studies on the effects of industrial food additives on intestinal permeability functions resulting in enhanced autoimmune, allergic and cancer diseases will impact on the food industry additive policy, food products labeling, consumer awareness, regulatory authorities and public health implementation.”