3 Surprising Lessons From the World’s Largest Nutrition Study

Beginning in 2009, the ongoing NutriNet-Santé study has collected data on nearly 200,000 participants, leading researchers to important conclusions about our diets.

The Happy Neuron
Mar 21 · 9 min read
New research suggests that modern food production causes an alarming amount of health issues.
New research suggests that modern food production causes an alarming amount of health issues.

The goal of the study is to collect as much data as possible on participants’ diets, lifestyles, genetics, medical backgrounds, living conditions, culture, etc. and find connections to increased rates of mortality. Participants submit most of this information online, but researchers also collect plasma, urine, and serum. Medical and insurance records are used for cross-reference.

Using this vast trove of data, researchers have uncovered results that should make us think twice about what we consume.

We’ve known for decades that processed foods generally have less nutrition and are associated with increased rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, among several other health problems. However, by using data from the NutriNet-Santé study, researchers have demonstrated that they are even worse than suspected.

For example, in a 2018 study from the British Medical Journal, researchers analyzed the NutriNet-Santé data and found an alarming correlation between processed foods and rates of cancer. For every percent increase in processed foods participants consumed, the same increase in cancer rates was found. Participants who increased their processed foods consumption by 10% were found to have a 10% greater risk of developing cancer. The rate was even higher for breast cancer.

The researchers attribute this to unnatural additives, which are added to processed foods to give them a more attractive appearance, extend their shelf lives, enhance their flavors, or disguise poor quality products. The researchers said “Flavouring agents, colours, emulsifiers, humectants, non-sugar sweeteners, and other cosmetic additives are often added to these products to imitate sensorial properties of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.”

Among the many unnatural additives in our food, these researchers took aim at modified starches, nitrites, hydrogenated oils, and protein isolates. Modified starches are derived from rice, corn, potatoes, or wheat, and they’re chemically altered to be more temperature resistant, create a more pleasing texture, and be easier to emulsify. They’re not inherently bad, but some of the undisclosed chemicals they’re treated with have caused some experts to worry about their effect on cancer rates. Furthermore, nitrites are created when the body breaks down nitrates, which is often used in place of salt as a preservative, especially with canned and heavily processed meats like hot dogs. Under particular conditions, nitrites can be transformed into the well-known carcinogens nitrosamines. Moreover, hydrogenated oils are created by forcing hydrogen gas into vegetable oil, giving it much longer shelf life. Unfortunately, this process also creates trans-fatty acids, which have been linked to the sharp uptick in heart disease in recent decades. Although the FDA and the health departments of many other countries have banned its use, it can still be found in some products, due to loopholes in the law. And protein isolates are dietary supplements that are derived from plants and animal products, but they have been found to contain “heavy metals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury), bisphenol-A (BPA, which is used to make plastic), pesticides, or other contaminants with links to cancer and other health conditions.”

In a different study published in BMC Medicine, researchers took the NutriNet-Santé data and found that the more processed foods participants ate, the more depressed they were. Out of the 26,730 participants, 2221 of them showed symptoms of depression, and on the average they consumed more processed foods, were younger in age, had higher rates of obesity, had lower income, had higher calorie and saturated fatty acids intake, and had “ a negative correlation with micronutrients (beta-carotene, vitamin C, folic acid, Vitamin B12, magnesium, and fibers) and omega 3 fatty acids.”

The authors of this study suggested three possible reasons why processed food might lead to depression. First, processed foods have more calories and less vitamins. This can lead to obesity, a more sedentary lifestyle, a myriad of health issues, and vitamin deficiencies, all of which have already been linked with depression. Second, processed foods have far more unnatural additives that might change how our bodies function. For example, the researchers claim that “Some experimental studies argue for a modulating role of artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, on neurotransmitters regulation which may lead to symptoms such as mood or depression.” They also believe that a common whitener called titanium oxide can lead to neuroinflammation in animals, and additives like MSG may make us more susceptible to depressive stimuli. Third, processed foods might change our gut flora, the complex world of bacteria that inhabits our intestines. The researchers believe unnatural additives, especially emulsifiers, can change the delicate balance between the hundreds of different types of bacteria. Multiple studies have already demonstrated that your gut flora has a significant influence over food digestion and nutrient absorption, which can impact “impact stress, anxiety, depression, and cognition.”

Furthermore, in another study from the British Medical Journal researchers used the NutriNet-Santé data to find that “an absolute increment of 10 in the percentage of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a 12%, 13%, and 11% statistically significant increase in the rates of overall cardiovascular, coronary heart, and cerebrovascular disease, respectively.” The researchers believe this is because processed foods generally cause a spike in blood sugar, which can damage heart tissue, blood vessels, and even the nerve endings that control your heart. They also pointed to the large amounts of salt, fat, and sugar that processed foods contain, as well as the lack of fiber.

So looking at these 3 studies, processed foods cause far more health issues than we suspected. Unfortunately, more than 60% of the American diet consists of processed foods, and this number increases each year. Perhaps this explains why cancer rates, depression rates, and heart disease rates are also steadily increasing in the US. The data doesn’t look much better for many Western nations and some Eastern nations, suggesting this global problem is going to get worse before it gets better.

When researchers combed through the NutriNet-Santé data, they found 4 key results, all of which demonstrate that organic labels are not just a trick to get you to pay more money.

For example, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine took data on 68, 946 NutriNet-Santé participants and found that 1,340 of them had some form of cancer. After looking at the amount of organic food consumed, they determined that “high organic food scores were inversely associated with the overall risk of cancer.” In other words, the more organic food they ate, the lower the rate of cancer. The researchers suspect this is the case due to the lack of pesticides present in organic food. In particular, they believe the pesticides malathion, diazinon, tetrachlorvinphos, and parathion are the culprits.

Another study echoes this conclusion, as the researchers found lower pesticide concentrations in the urine of NutriNet-Santé participants that ate more organic food. They claim that “Our findings confirm that exposure to certain organophosphate and pyrethroïd pesticides in adults may be lowered by switching from conventional to organic foods.” They also say that switching to organic fruits and vegetables seems to have the highest impact, as these tend to have the most pesticide residues.

Furthermore, a study from the British Journal of Nutrition found a strong connection between organic food and body mass index (BMI). The researchers took data from 62,224 NutriNet-Santé study participants and found that the higher percentage of organic food in their diets, the less BMI they were likely to have. They suggested that this could be because organic farming practices lead to higher nutritional content: “these results may contribute to fine-tune nutritional guidelines by accounting for farming practices in food production.”

So organic food actually has numerous benefits, but packaging labels can be deceptive, as companies would love to charge organic prices for non-organic products. In the US, food companies must follow the somewhat misleading standards set by the USDA, which has created 4 categories for “organic” food. If the front label says “100 Percent Organic,” then the product is almost certainly not made with pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, or any other prohibited substances. If the label says “organic,” this means that 5% of the ingredients are not organic, as they were made or came into contact with prohibited substances. “Made with organic _________” means 30% of the ingredients are not organic. Lastly, for products that only contain a few specific organic ingredients, this information can be listed on the back label, such as in the ingredient list. However, exceptions can be made for minimal amounts of certain types of processing, as well as small producers, distributors, retail food establishments, and some handling operations. Therefore, even though we’re buying organic food, we may not be eating as much organic as we think we are.

Using the NutriNet-Santé data, several teams of researchers sought to determine the impact food labels had on people’s nutritional awareness.

One study from the journal PLOS One looked at 4 European labelling systems: Nutri-Score, the simplified nutrition labelling system (SENS), modified Reference Intakes (mRIs), and Multiple Traffic Lights (MTL). The researchers found that all of these systems led to a greater awareness of nutritional content when compared to no labels, in that participants were better able to rank products by their nutritional content. However, the researchers found that Nutri-Score, “with a summarized graded and color-coded format, using semantic colours, is associated to a higher objective understanding than monochrome and nutrient-specific labels.”

In a similar study, researchers used the NutriNet-Santé data and found that “the Nutri-Score was associated with a higher nutritional quality of purchases in experimental and large scale trials.” The researchers in this study noted that this system could be a vital tool in public health education and could lead to a significant reduction in chronic diseases.

So what is Nutri-Score? It’s an A-E scoring system that appears clearly on the front label of products, thus allowing customers to make healthy decisions. A product’s score is calculated by subtracting the points awarded for bad ingredients (“energy, sugars, saturated fatty acids, salt”) from the points awarded for good ingredients (“proteins, fibre, percentage of fruit, vegetables, nuts, rapeseed oil, walnut oil and olive oil”). This score then gets converted to an easy to read label.

The Nutri-score system is being implemented across Europe because of its impact on consumers’ nutritional choices.
The Nutri-score system is being implemented across Europe because of its impact on consumers’ nutritional choices.
The Nutri-score system is being implemented across Europe because of its impact on consumers’ nutritional choices. (Image Credit: Public Domain)

The two main takeaways from the many studies based on the NutriNet-Santé data are that most of us don’t know what’s in our food, and we don’t know the negative impacts it’s having on our health. Scientists are finding pesticides, heavy metals, even microplastics inside the human body, causing damage we are only beginning to understand. What we know already is alarming.

And, the more we learn, the clearer it is that the benefits of modern food production may be getting overshadowed by the negatives. On one hand, it’s an unprecedented accomplishment to feed a population of over 7.6 billion people, but, on the other hand, the cost of the health problems caused by modern food production is really starting to add up.

For example, in the US alone pesticides caused serious economic and environmental damage. A 2013 study calculated these damages were “public health, $1.1 billion year; pesticide resistance in pests, $1.5 billion; crop losses caused by pesticides, $1.4 billion; bird losses due to pesticides, $2.2 billion; and groundwater contamination, $2.0 billion.” Likewise, Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) was successfully sued in 2020 for more than $10 billion to settle nearly 100,000 cases of consumers developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma due to using their weed-killer Roundup.

And what about the cost from increased rates of other types of cancer, heart disease, depression, obesity, etc.? And how do we calculate the loss of both quality and quantity of life? What about the rapid loss of biodiversity, much of which is due to modern food production?

The answers to these questions are not simple, but it’s clear that change is needed. Efforts like the NutriNet-Santé study are a step in the right direction, as the vast amounts of data it provides allows researchers to find patterns that only become apparent on large scales. Luckily, researchers will soon expand it beyond Belgium and France into Mexico, Brazil, and Canada, making the world’s largest nutrition study even bigger.

Originally published at http://thehappyneuron.com on March 21, 2021.

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