What Are Emulsifiers, and What Do They Do in Our Food?

What Are Emulsifiers, and What Do They Do in Our Food?

If you have seen any 1970s-themed movie, or better yet grew up in the ’70s, you’ve seen them before: colorful, mesmerizing, some might even say soothing. We’re talking about lava lamps. Within these luminaries, the combinations of water and heated wax simply would not mix no matter how many times the psychedelic bubbles of wax floated to the top of the lamp and back down again. The reason? Oil and water do not naturally mix on their own. But what if something could help mix these traditionally repelling agents? Luckily, when it comes to food, that something exists, and our taste buds are forever thankful. Enter emulsifiers!

What are emulsifiers?

Emulsifiers are Food and Drug Administration–approved food additives that help products containing immiscible food ingredients, like oil and water, to combine. You can find emulsifiers in plenty of prepackaged and processed foods, including mayonnaise, margarine, meats, ice cream, salad dressings, chocolate, peanut butter and other nut butters, shelf-stable frostings, cookies, crackers, creamy sauces, breads, baked products and ice cream.

Emulsifiers can be man-made or naturally occurring. Many emulsifiers used today are of a naturally derived variety called hydrocolloids. Hydrocolloids serve as thickening agents and support the structure, texture, flavor, and shelf life of various food products, and they are often referred to simply as gums because of the food texture and consistency they create. Hydrocolloids include emulsifiers made from plants, animals and aquatic sources. Plant-based hydrocolloids include locust bean gum, carrageenan, pectin, and starch, while animal-sourced varieties including chitosan made from crustacean shells. (Talk about reducing waste!) Hydrocolloids, like xanthan gum, can also come from microbial sources, and even food products themselves—mustard, oil, salt, egg yolk and vinegar—can serve as emulsifiers.

Without emulsifiers like hydrocolloids, you could look forward to scooping into a layer of fat before getting to the soupy, water-based flavors of your yogurt—no thanks! Emulsifiers also reduce food stickiness and help foods maintain a smooth texture and flavor. Ice cream is a great example of how emulsifiers reduce stickiness in certain foods, so that each bite of ice cream is not like chewing toffee.

How are natural emulsifiers used in foods and beverages?

Three of the most used hydrocolloids include guar gum, gellan gum, and carrageenan.

  • Guar gum can be used to emulsify, thicken, and stabilize ingredients in food products, even those that require cold temperatures during manufacturing. Guar gum helps to provide and maintain a smooth texture in reduced-calorie dairy-based and plant-milk products.
  • Gellan gum, which is produced by a naturally occurring microorganism, is commonly used as a gelling agent. It can be used to create fluid gels that are incorporated into a wide range of natural dairy products and soy-based products. Gellan gum can also be used as a thickener, binder, and stabilizer. It stabilizes water-based gels, such as certain desserts and drinking jellies.
  • Carrageenan is sourced from red seaweeds and helps to thicken foods, giving them a gel-like consistency. Carrageenan is commonly used in dairy and dairy-alternative products, particularly flavored milk and soy milk. This emulsifier binds with proteins in animal and plant milks to stabilize their liquid components. Processed meats can also contain carrageenan. Those that do have a softer texture and retain 20% to 40% more water.

How do I know that emulsifiers are safe?

Research suggests that emulsifiers, especially those that are naturally derived, are safe. The FDA regularly and carefully reviews the safety of all food additives. Guar gum, gellan gum and carrageenan were approved for use in foods between the 1960s and 1970s by the FDA, and they currently have a Generally Recognized as Safe designation.

Although emulsifiers are used in small quantities, their abundance in packaged foods has caused many to question if they could cause harm. The FDA reviews the safety of approved food additives based on the best, most up-to-date research. For example, in 2017, the FDA reviewed and confirmed the safety of carrageenan when concerns regarding its safety were raised. While carrageenan is still considered safe, some research suggests that it may cause or amplify existing gastrointestinal (GI) inflammation. Guar gum and gellan gum have been questioned to a lesser extent but were also reaffirmed in 2020. In direct contrast to potential risks, other research suggests that hydrocolloids may provide health benefits. Some hydrocolloids have been shown to lower cholesterol levels, improve insulin function, act as prebiotics, and serve as a good source of fiber.

Making informed food decisions

Natural emulsifiers like hydrocolloids are present in many foods and are helpful in ensuring packaged foods keep their consistency, texture, smoothness, and flavor. When deciding whether to eat a product that contains hydrocolloids, know that they are Generally Recognized as Safe by the FDA and that research also suggests that hydrocolloids could have protective health benefits. To help consumers identify foods containing these additives and make informed decisions, the FDA requires that food companies specify emulsifiers used in food products on their ingredient lists.

This article was written by Casey Terrell, MPH, RD.



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