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Food Additives, Intestinal Permeability and Autoimmunity

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Chantelle Van Der Weyden ● 3 min read

A recent 2015 study has surmised that the rise in autoimmune disease may be as a result of food additive consumption damaging gastrointestinal mucosa and increasing intestinal permeability.

The incidence of autoimmune disease is on the rise, particularly in Western countries [1] with approximately 1 in 31 Australians affected.[2] Deemed chronic and incurable, this collection of diseases (including but not limited to, type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and autoimmune thyroiditis) constitutes a serious public health concern.[3

The underlying cause of autoimmunity remains largely unknown, however the role of the environment, including nutrition, is becoming increasingly evident.[3] Coupled with the rise in autoimmune incidence is the increase in industrial food processing and the consequent consumption of food additives. An adverse relationship between food additives and intestinal permeability exists, as does an adverse relationship between intestinal permeability and autoimmune disease. 

It is argued that in order for an autoimmune disease to exist there must be a loss of the protective function of the mucosal barriers and thus an interaction with the environment triggering an antigen response.[4] This relationship prompted researchers to explore whether increased intestinal permeability induced by industrial food additives might explain the observed surge in autoimmune disease.[1]

The typical “Western diet” is high in fat, trans fatty acids, cholesterol, proteins, sugar and salt, and includes frequent consumption of processed and fast foods.[5

This study looked at seven food additives which are regularly ingested by default when consuming the ‘typical’ Western diet. These include sugars, salt, emulsifiers and surfactants, organic solvents including alcohol, gluten, microbial transglutaminase (mTG) and nanoparticles. The authors hypothesise that all seven of these common additives may be linked to increased intestinal permeability by inducing tight junction dysfunction. Tight junction dysfunction correlates strongly with the pathogenesis of autoimmune disease by initiating paracellular transfer of foreign immunogenic antigens which activates the autoimmune cascade.[1]  

PICTURE:[1] A schematic representation of the sequential steps through which industrial food additives induce autoimmune diseases. Commonly used industrial food additives abrogate human epithelial barrier function, thus increasing intestinal permeability through the opened tight juncitons, resulting in entry of foreign immunogenic antigens and activation of the autoimmune cascade.

Though definitive conclusions cannot be drawn on the exact mechanism by which food additives and altered intestinal permeability may induce autoimmune disease, this study highlights that further research is warranted as it has the consequence of impacting food industry additive policies, food product labelling, consumer awareness, regulatory authorities and public health implementation.[1]

It should be noted that, the hypothesis put forward in this paper is also not without its limitations. Namely, that the food additives were looked at in isolation, therefore ignoring the complex nature of food composition. Whilst more exploration is needed, it does have some clinical significance for practitioners working with autoimmune patients. It seems prudent to consider suggesting to patients to be mindful of their consumption of certain food additives; at the very least those mentioned in this research. 


  1. Lerner A, Matthias T. Changes in intestinal tight junction permeability associated with industrial food additives explain the rising incidence of autoimmune disease. Autoimmun Rev 2015;14(6);479-489. [Full Text]
  2. Hechtman L. Clinical naturopathic medicine. Chatswood: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2012. 
  3. Parks CG, Miller FW, Pollard KM, et al. Expert panel workshop consensus statement on the role of the environment in the development of autoimmune disease. Int J Mol Sci 2014;15(8);14269-14297. [Full Text
  4. Fasano A, Shea-Donohue T. Mechanisms of disease: the role of intestinal barrier function in the pathogenesis of gastrointestinal autoimmune diseases. Nat Clin Pract Gastroenterol Hepatol 2005;2(9);416-422. [Full Text
  5. Manzel A, Muller DA, Hafler SE, et al. Role of “Western diet” in inflammatory autoimmune diseases. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep 2014;14:404. [Full Text]


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Chantelle Van Der Weyden
Chantelle holds qualifications in nutritional medicine and psychology and is currently completing her naturopathic studies. She is a passionate advocate of food as medicine and the healing power of nature. Chantelle's ares of interest include digestive health, mental health, fatigue, emotional wellbeing, hormonal health, pre-conception care, pregnancy care, weight-loss and achieving an overall beautiful healthy glow from the inside out. Chantelle shares her knowledge and connects with others via her blog; www.chantellevdw.com