What are Emulsifiers and Why Are They in My Food?
Find out what these ingredients are, and what they mean for your health.
There are several emulsifiers in food: soy lecithin, carrageenan, mono- and diglycerides, acacia gum, carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate 80—the list goes on. So what are they anyway? And why are they in food? We have the answers on their use and what they do to your health.
What Are Emulsifiers?
In the same way that mustard is used to prevent a homemade vinaigrette from separating, these ingredients help stabilize foods made with oil and water, which famously don't mix. They're found in all sorts of products, like bottled dressings and shelf-stable frostings. Emulsifiers also help foods like cookies and crackers maintain a light, tender texture by keeping oil and water bound together so the fat is uniformly distributed. These ingredients prevent ice crystals from forming in frozen foods like ice cream, as well.
Are Emulsifiers Safe?
While emulsifiers are used in small amounts, they're such a common ingredient in packaged foods that they tend to add up in most Americans' diets. Fortunately, research suggests that most of these emulsifiers are generally safe.
In fact, preliminary research suggests that some of the natural ones could even have health benefits: Soy lecithin and guar gum may lower cholesterol levels, and several studies have linked acacia (aka gum arabic) and xanthan gums with improvements in insulin function among people with type 2 diabetes. Acacia also appears to act as a prebiotic, feeding the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
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A few of these additives, however, have gotten a bad rap. A study at Georgia State University found that two synthetic emulsifiers, polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose, can disrupt the microbiome of mice—although they were given about four times as much of each as the average human eats in a day.
Studies have also suggested that carrageenan (derived from seaweed) can worsen gastrointestinal inflammation. But much of the research has been done in animals, and negative effects have only been found when inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis) already exists.
There are many emulsifiers in food, and they are not bad for your health. Most all are regarded as safe and some even have health benefits, like soy lecithin and guar gum. If you have a history of GI issues, you may want to avoid specific emulsifiers (namely polysorbate 80, carboxymethylcellulose and carrageenan). But otherwise, you don't need to worry.