The concept of ultra-processed foods (AUT) was born in Brazil, in the laboratory of Professor Carlos Monteiro. But it was the work of the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team (Eren), led by Frenchwoman Mathilde Touvier, 43, which made it possible to uncover the risks linked to the consumption of this denatured food full of additives. . His first study on the subject dates from 2018.
It points to an association between a diet rich in AUT and an increased risk of developing cancer. Publications will then follow in 2019 on all-cause mortality, symptoms of depression and cardiovascular pathologies. Then in 2020, type 2 diabetes and overweight. Finally, in 2021, inflammatory bowel diseases.
The NutriNet-Santé cohort, a unique tool of its kind
“Since then, many other scientists have confirmed our work, and meta-analyses, the best in terms of scientific demonstration, have been published,” rejoices Mathilde Touvier. If this researcher is at the forefront in this field, it is because her laboratory, hosted by the Sorbonne Paris-Nord University in Bobigny, has a unique tool of its kind: the NutriNet-Santé cohort. Some 175,000 French people have been monitored there since 2009. Via the Internet, they share their health and diet data at regular intervals. A wealth of information, because the foods consumed are listed in great detail, down to the brand of the products and the list of ingredients, thanks to a partnership with the Open Food Facts database.
Enough to carry out in-depth and innovative studies. Each time, the scientific articles from Mathilde Touvier’s team, published in prestigious journals, earned her media headlines and recognition from her peers. Like this study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), revealing that emulsifiers, present in many industrial dishes, are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. Or this appeal, co-signed with other renowned researchers, still in the BMJurging public authorities to act to protect consumers.
“Bringing science to the social, political and media level”
It was from the work of his laboratory, at the time when it was still directed by Professor Serge Hercberg, that Nutri-Score was born. Mathilde Touvier followed all her battles to impose the five-color logo which provides information on the nutritional quality of foods. Since 2019, she has taken over. Both on the scientific side, but also on her societal commitments: “Mathilde is entirely aware that we must produce high-level science, but that we must then bring it to the social, political and media level, so that this science serves the interests of the population”, notes Professor Serge Hercberg.
A commitment where there are often blows to be taken. Like when she participates in the expert committee of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic. The pressure is rarely direct, but it was as if by chance during this period that a controversial and slanderous article about his work appeared on a blog written by a former lobbyist for the chemical industry. “We never have explicit threats to our funding,” notes Mathilde Touvier. “But public research is not sufficiently funded for it to function properly.” The young forty-year-old, however, refuses any research contract in partnership with agri-food companies: “It is essential that nutrition research remains financially independent, so that the results are not biased,” she insists.
She has won many awards
His work has already earned him numerous awards: the Inserm Research Prize, and that of the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation (used for the renovation of its premises in Bobigny!). In 2019, the researcher also received funding from the very selective European Research Council (ERC) for her “Additives” project. It brings together different French laboratories to study the health effects of different food additives for five years. This year, she even landed the annual chair of public health at the Collège de France, created in partnership with Public Health France. A recognition, but also the means of helping to widely disseminate its work, all its courses, very accessible, being online on the institution’s website.
Beyond the relationships between nutrition and health in the broad sense, his team is interested in many other questions: the impact of our eating behaviors on the environment, the economic, psychological, sociological and cultural determinants of our nutritional choices ( the obstacles and levers to the adoption of a more virtuous diet), or the biological mechanisms which underlie the relationships between nutrition and health, thanks to partnerships with other research teams. The holy grail for the scientist, who had hesitated between medicine and research: “Nutrition is our common everyday good. It concerns us all, and the stakes are major in political, economic and societal terms.”