Could Processed Foods Raise the Risk of Autoimmune Diseases?

If you are struggling with a resolution to eat healthier, a study published in the journal Autoimmunity Reviews may help you get back on the ladder. Researchers suggest that eating processed foods may weaken the intestines in a way that raises the risk for autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, celiac disease and multiple sclerosis.

After a hard day at work, it is tempting to reach for foods that are quick and easy to prepare. For many of us, this means turning to processed foods, such as microwave meals, which are usually high in fat, salt, sugar and other additives.

Processed foods are defined by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.”

This means that it is not only microwave meals that meet the “processed” definition. Cheese, breakfast cereals, canned fruits and vegetables, bread, savory snacks and meats such as bacon and sausages are also examples of foods that have been subject to some form of processing.

A number of studies have reported the negative health effects of consuming some processed foods, including increased risk of weight gain and heart disease. And last October, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that eating processed meats can cause colorectal cancer.

Now, Prof. Aaron Lerner, of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, and Dr. Torsten Matthias, of the Aesku-Kipp Institute in Germany, suggest the consumption of processed foods may be associated with development of autoimmune diseases.

At least seven food additives may weaken intestine’s resistance to toxins

An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body, mistaking them for foreign invaders. This can lead to destruction of body tissue and abnormal organ growth and function.

There are more than 100 types of autoimmune disorders. Some of the more common forms include celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Prof. Lerner and Dr. Matthias note that there has been a rise in both the prevalence of autoimmune diseases and consumption of processed foods in recent years. For their study, they set out to determine whether there is a link between the two.

Specifically, the researchers looked at how certain additives in processed foods—used to improve the taste, texture, smell and shelf life—affect the intestines and the development of autoimmune diseases.

The team explains that many autoimmune diseases are triggered by dysfunction of “tight junctions” in the intestine, which are sealants between epithelial cells that protect the mucosa, the lining of the gastrointestinal tract that helps food pass through.

Normal-functioning tight junctions help protect the immune system from bacteria and other foreign bodies, but any damage to the tight junctions can lead to what is called “leaky gut,” in which toxins can enter the bloodstream, potentially leading to the development of autoimmune diseases.

In their study, the researchers identified at least seven common food additives—including glucose, gluten, sodium, fat solvents, organic acids, nanometric particles and microbial transglutaminase (an enzyme used as a food protein “glue”)—that weakened tight junctions in the intestine.

Based on their findings, the researchers suggest that consumption of processed foods may increase the risk for autoimmune diseases. They note that the food additive market is not highly regulated, making such findings a cause for concern.

Prof. Lerner says:  “Control and enforcement agencies such as the FDA stringently supervise the pharmaceutical industry, but the food additive market remains unsupervised enough. 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.”

In June of last year, the FDA revealed they are banning a key source of artificial trans fats in processed foods called partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), with the hope that doing so will reduce Americans’ risk of heart attack and heart disease.

Fast facts about processed foods
  • More than 75% of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed and restaurant foods

  • Generally, any food that has a nutrition label has been processed

  • Not all food processing is bad; milk, for example, needs to go through a pasteurizing process to remove any harmful bacteria.

  • There are more than 100 types of autoimmune disorders. Some of the more common forms include celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Learn about healthy eating


Could Processed Foods Raise the Risk of Autoimmune Diseases? – Reprinted with permission from 

Honor WhitemanHonor Whiteman is interested in all aspects of the medical world, but her main interests lie within new medical diagnostics, neurology, stem cell research and cancer research. Honor has strong journalism experience and prior to joining the MNT team, she worked within a number of financial publications covering both consumer and trade finance. You can follow Honor Whiteman on Twitter or Google+ .


Changes in intestinal tight junction permeability associated with industrial food additives explain the rising incidence of autoimmune disease, Aaron Lerner, Torsten Matthias, Autoimmunity Reviews, doi:10.1016/j.autrev.2015.01.009, published online 9 February 2015.

American Technion Society news release, accessed 4 January 2016 via Newswise.

Additional source: CDC, Sodium’s role in processed food, accessed 4 January 2016.

Additional source: MedlinePlus, Autoimmune disorders, accessed 4 January 2016.

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