Emulsifiers are food additives used to create an even mixture of hydrophilic and hydrophobic ingredients that are normally not mixable, such as oil and water. In the food and beverage industry, they are mainly used to keep combinations of ingredients that would otherwise separate, like oil and vinegar in dressings and mayonnaise, evenly blended.
Given their properties in enhancing appearance, taste, texture, mouthfeel, and shelf life, emulsifiers often feature on the ingredient lists of many popular food products including margarine, confectionery, ice cream, and bakery products.
Common examples of emulsifiers include lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, polysorbates, carrageenan, carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) and xanthan gum.
Despite being considered safe by most food regulators globally, a growing body of evidence is emerging that suggests the consumption of emulsifiers negatively impacts human health, particularly gastrointestinal and metabolic health.
Concern about the impact of emulsifiers on gut and digestive health rises
One study published in Nature by the National Institute of Health found that the consumption of emulsifiers was linked to an increase in colorectal inflammation and tumorigenesis in mice. Additionally, a study by the University of Minnesota showed that emulsifiers could cause changes in gut microbiota composition and a decrease in the production of healthy short-chain fatty acids in the gut.
To date, few studies have been conducted on the potential negative health impacts of ingested emulsifiers in humans, with current research mostly limited to in vitro and rodent studies. Given the recent growth in the use of emulsifiers in the food industry, researchers are increasingly calling for controlled human trials of longer duration to accurately measure how these ingredients may affect human health.
One study conducted on rats and extracted human tissue found that acute exposure to carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate 80, two commonly used emulsifiers, altered the protective mucus barrier in the intestines, affecting the interactions between intestinal lumen contents, microbes, and underlying tissue. The results indicate that ingesting even small amounts of emulsifiers could contribute to the development of intestinal inflammation and increase the risk of contracting E. coli infections, the researchers say
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Discovering healthy and sustainable alternatives to emulsifiers
Consumers are growing increasingly health-conscious and are looking to replace processed products containing additives such as emulsifiers with healthier alternatives. According to the results of a nationwide survey conducted by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), more than half (55%) of consumers try to avoid additives when buying food. Over four in 10 (43%) said they look to avoid emulsifiers; with 12% reporting that they were very concerned about lecithin particularly.
Several startups are seeking to disrupt the processed food sector and appeal to health-conscious consumers by creating healthier substitutes to emulsifiers for food and drink applications. French startup SurfactGreen produces a range of emulsifier-free ingredients and encourages consumers to "replace emulsifiers with sustainable and natural alternatives". Using the circular principles of green chemistry, the company offers solvent-free, plant-based emulsions that improve the taste and texture of products without costing human or environmental health, it says.
A team of Singapore-based scientists at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have developed a protein and antioxidant-rich emulsifier which, upcycled from brewing industry by-products, is a healthy and sustainable alternative to traditional emulsifiers. The yeast-derived, plant-based ingredient is produced by fermenting spent brewers’ grain and has been trialed in applications such as mayonnaise and whipped cream. Compared to shop-bought mayonnaise, the NTU product was found to contain higher levels of protein and certain amino acids, whilst also being animal-free.
“Our plant-based emulsifier is yet another triumph for NTU, as we look to find successful ways to find new uses for products that would otherwise be left to waste,” said Professor William Chen, director of food science and technology director at NTU in a statement.
“Each year, approximately 39 million tons of brewers’ spent grain is generated globally by the brewing industry and is sent to landfills. Upcycling this as a potential human food source is an opportunity for enhancing processing efficiency in the food supply chain, as well as potentially promoting a healthier plant-based protein alternative to enrich diets.”
Another company creating healthier alternatives to emulsifiers is Scotland-based Oceanium. Using a proprietary biorefinery process, the company produce an umami ingredient to replace methylcellulose, from seaweed. The ingredient contains 69% dietary fibre and improves the moisture retention and water binding ability, as well as texture, viscosity, and gelling capabilities of product formulations.
“Ocean Health Fibre is a unique product with great functionality due to its natural combination of insoluble and soluble polysaccharides. This gives it a significant thickening effect at both low and high temperatures, similar to methylcellulose. It is also a very effective water binder which can increase the moistness of breads, particularly in gluten-free recipes,” Dr Iain Moore, food scientist for Oceanium said.
Despite being marketed as healthy alternatives to current emulsifiers, the impact of novel ingredients such as those mentioned above on metabolic and digestive health is yet to be determined.
Processed foods are gaining popularity
Food and beverage products that use emulsifiers have become increasingly popular in recent years, data from Future Market Insights and ReportLinker shows. Growing at an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.9%, the global food emulsifiers market is projected to reach a high of almost $4.6 billion by 2027, with Europe dominating close to a third (29.5%) of the market.
This growth is closely interlinked with the rise in demand for ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which in 2022 constituted as much as 60% of total daily energy intake in some settings, research suggests. The worldwide shift towards processed foods is considered by many to be a key driving force behind the obesity epidemic and chronic disease burden the world is currently facing.