A “dangerous bias” in research into the health effects of artificial sweeteners and other food additives could be creating false reassurance about ultra-processed food, a BBC Panorama programme has heard.
Ultra-Processed Food: A Recipe for Ill-Health? brought together prominent scientists and commentators to examine regulator and industry claims that ultra-processed food (UPF) are safe. Several of the programme’s high-profile contributors were unconvinced, including the epidemiologist and author, Professor Tim Spector, who told Panorama that increasing consumption of UPF was a “health time bomb…a complete disaster that we are sleepwalking into”.
The programme highlighted results of one the first investigations into mortality and consumption of ultra-processed food, conducted in France at the University Sorbonne Paris Nord. One of the most striking findings of the investigation, which is part of an ongoing study into the eating habits of 174,000 people, was that when the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet increased by 10%, then the number of cancers detected increased by 12%.
Increasing the burden of cancer
The researchers concluded: “These results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades.”
Ultra-processed food is most commonly defined using the NOVA classification system, and is based on the ‘extent’, ‘purpose’ and ‘nature’ of food processing, within national dietary guidelines. But particular ingredients and additives commonly found in UPF have also come in for scrutiny.
Emulsifiers – used to thicken and stabilise processed foods – are a class of additives that are included in the research being undertaken by the Parties team, led by Dr Mathilde Touvier. She told Panorama that researchers had “observed significant associations between emulsifier intake and increased risk of cancer overall – and breast cancer notably – but also with cardiovascular diseases.”
Panorama also heard from UK based academic, Erik Millstone, a specialist in scientific policy, who has challenged a 2013 formal assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that the artificial sweetener aspartame is safe, despite multiple studies linking it to serious harm to health, including the development of certain cancers. Professor Millstone has reviewed all of the research that EFSA considered before making its judgement. He told the Panorama programme that he had observed a clear connection between how research was funded and the findings it produced. He said: “I’ve produced and published a very detailed analysis of each of the studies. Of the studies that found harm, I think every single one of them was founded by a non-commercial source. Around three quarters of those found an association between aspartame and harm. However, about 90% of the reassuring studies were funded by large chemical corporations that manufacture and sell aspartame. So there’s a pattern that suggest that the industry designs and constructs studies that provide reassuring evidence. I see that as a very profound and very dangerous bias.”