There has been a strong focus on human nutrition for several years now, and especially on the diseases that it causes. A widely discussed topic is the additives, which are increasingly found in highly processed foods (1).
In principle, eating habits can influence health in different ways and can sometimes lead to high risk factors for disease. An unhealthy diet with other risk factors such as lack of exercise almost always leads to health problems. It has even gone so far that nutritional factors are seen as the main cause of the global burden of disease (1).
This particularly includes the consumption of highly processed foods. These are rich in harmful components such as saturated and trans fatty acids, high sugar and salt contents and additives. These foods are characterized by a low nutritional quality and a high energy density at the same time. This means that the less weight they have, the more calories they have. Due to the increased availability of highly processed foods over the last two decades, consumption has increased to the point where it accounts for an average of 32% of daily energy intake. On the other hand, these foods are low in vitamin density and fiber (1).
What are additives?
Additives are generally used to optimize the properties of foods and are often added to them for technological reasons. For example, they are intended to improve the taste, appearance or shelf life (2).
In the EU and Germany, 320 additives are approved with their corresponding E numbers and are divided into different classes depending on their intended use. There are the classes of sweeteners, colors, preservatives, flavor enhancers and many others (2). All of these additives have been checked by experts and a maximum amount has been set for each substance that is acceptable for normal consumption. However, this can quickly become problematic if the additives are consumed in excess of the recommended maximum amounts. This can happen, for example, if highly processed foods are consumed in excess of the portion size suggested on the packaging (3).
Why can additives be problematic?
A large prospective cohort study involving nearly 20,000 subjects over a 15-year period examined the association between consumption of highly processed foods and all-cause mortality (1).
It was found that the participants who were assigned to the fourth group with the highest consumption of highly processed foods had a higher risk of all-cause mortality than those in the lowest quarter. High consumption was defined as consuming more than four servings of highly processed foods per day. In numerical terms, the risk of all-cause mortality increased by 62%, and for each additional serving it increased relatively by 18% (1).
Food can be divided into different categories according to the “NOVA food classification”, depending on the degree of processing. Group 1 includes unprocessed and less processed foods such as fresh fruit or frozen vegetables. The second group includes products that have already been processed, such as salt or butter, and the third group includes foods that were produced with the first group, such as bread or canned tomatoes. The last and fourth group consists of highly processed foods, which include sausages, baked goods or ready meals (1).
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also found that high levels of processing can lead to the formation of toxic compounds, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or acrylamide (4).
Furthermore, the Federal Center for Nutrition assumes that a high intake of additives can promote inflammation in the body. The intestinal microbiome plays a major role here, which can be influenced by diet. Therefore, high consumption of highly processed foods leads to the immune system being disrupted. This can promote chronic inflammation and health problems in the body. However, research in this area is still in its infancy (4). The consumption of different additives in combination has not yet been researched.
In which foods are additives increasingly found?
Additives are increasingly found in industrially produced foods, including snack items, chocolate bars, cookies, frozen meals, but also in some plant-based alternatives to meat, milk, yoghurt or cheese (4).
What are other risks?
In addition to the increase in overall all-cause mortality, statistically significant associations have also been found between higher consumption of highly processed foods and an increased risk of cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, overweight, obesity and high blood pressure (1). However, chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, dementia or cardiovascular diseases can also be promoted (4).
How can risks be avoided?
There are several starting points that can lead to a reduction in risks. The amount of highly processed foods in particular plays a major role. First and foremost, consumption should be reduced and more fresh and natural foods should be incorporated into the everyday diet (4).
However, this is not always easy to implement with all foods or every type of diet. Vegetable alternative products, such as milk alternatives, often have additives added, and yet for many vegans or lactose-intolerant people they are the only way to enjoy a delicious cappuccino, for example. Pelster's products come to the rescue here, as they are always free of additives and have a list of ingredients that is as reduced as possible. Some products are even available in organic quality.
It can therefore be said that there are numerous products that are free of additives and can therefore support physical well-being. As a consumer, it is important to find these and increasingly incorporate them into your everyday diet.
Author: Annika Napp - aspiring ecotrophologist
(1) Rico-Campà A, Martínez-González MA, Alvarez-Alvarez I, Mendonca R d D, de la Fuente-Arrillaga C, Gómez-Donoso C, Bes-Rastrollo M (2019): Association between consumption of ultra-processed Foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ, 365:l1949, DIO:10.1136/bmj.l1949.
(2) Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (n.d.): Use and effects of food additives. BVL [online] BVL - additives (bund.de) [last accessed: October 17, 2023].
(3) AOK (2023): E numbers: How dangerous are additives?, AOK [online] Additives: harmful or harmless? (aok.de) [last access: October 17, 2023].
(4) Kreutz H (n.d.): Highly processed foods, BZfE [online] Highly processed foods - BZfE [last accessed: October 17, 2023].