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Food Emulsifiers and Chronic Disease Risk—What’s the Link?

a photo of a table full of food with six pairs of hands holding out plates or eating utensils over different meals that have food emulsifiers

For many, processed foods are a normal part of the everyday diet. In fact, Americans get about 70 percent of calories from them. Among the ingredients typically found in such foods are emulsifying additives. Since they’re so common, a lot of individuals pay no attention to what these emulsifiers do to our health. However, research findings suggest that raising awareness of the effects of additives is a must. As it turns out, food emulsifiers actually affect gut health and are likely contributors in increasing the risk of chronic disease.

How Food Emulsifiers Affect the Gut

Food emulsifiers are essential for the production of many processed foods. They help otherwise unmixable ingredients blend together to form a homogenous substance. They keep liquids like oils and fats from separating. In addition, such additives improve the shelf life of food items. Polysorbate 80, lecithin and xanthan are some of the food emulsifiers typically found in nutrition labels.

Several studies have identified emulsifier in food as one of the additives that alter the gut balance. They disrupt the mucous membranes that separate friendly bacteria from intestinal walls. As a result, dysbiosis occurs. Harmful bacteria move from the gut across the lining and into the bloodstream. Immune cells then attack the foreign invaders by producing inflammatory compounds. Over time, the intestinal inflammation can become chronic.

Metabolic Syndrome and Chronic Disease Risk

A study released in 2015 tested emulsifier health effects on lab mice. The researchers added E466-carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) and polysorbate-80 (P80) to the subjects’ diet. The number of doses aimed to model the human intake of additives in many processed foods. After consuming food emulsifiers for a certain period, the mice eventually acquired low-level gastrointestinal inflammation. They also ate more and gained weight. In addition, they had higher blood sugar levels and resistance to insulin.

a photo quote of Andrew Gewirtz, Ph.D., on food emulsifiers, emulsifier in food, and emulsifier health effects
Andrew Gewirtz, Ph.D., gives valuable insight into emulsifier health effects

What happened to the mice fed with food emulsifiers resembled symptoms of the metabolic syndrome. People with this condition have excessive fat, high blood pressure and poor control of blood sugar. Such disorders contribute to their increased risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

The exact causes of metabolic syndrome in humans is an area of ongoing medical research. Even then, the study done with mice present the possible mechanisms. The study’s co-author Andrew Gewirtz, Ph.D., explained the implications in an interview.

He said, “If our findings from mice are recapitulated in humans it would argue that use of this product by the food industry should be curtailed and that many food additives need to be tested in models that consider low-grade inflammation and the extent to which an additive might impact the gut microbiota.”

Exploring Alternatives to Emulsifier in Food

Scientists continue to investigate the link between gut health, chronic disease, and emulsifier in food. In the meantime, the simplest way to reduce risks is to avoid synthetic additives. In line with this, the current trend of ‘clean labeling’ in the food industry is growing in popularity. Companies have been looking into utilizing natural resources with similar properties to synthesized food emulsifiers.

a photo of a table of food with the names, Leatherhead Food Research and Corbion, in the discussion of food emulsifiers, emulsifier in food, and emulsifier health effects
Scientists continue to investigate emulsifier in food and emulsifier health effects.

Leatherhead Food Research has been working on finding substitutions for synthetic additives. The company released a white paper that rated the performance of natural food emulsifiers. Leatherhead has also been developing emulsion technology involved with fat reduction. In addition, the firm helps manufacturers analyze the properties of food emulsifiers in their products. Leatherhead utilizes laser diffraction technique, microscopy, and rheology in their emulsion research.

Corbion provides alternatives to synthetic emulsifier in food. The biochemical company produces additives that are bio-based and non-GMO. Among Corbion’s notable solutions is Trancendim. This food emulsifier removes oils without increasing saturated fat levels. It replaces the functionality of trans fat in baked goods. It also contains non-GMO sourced raw materials. Trancendim received the accolade of winning first place at the 2010 IFT Innovation Awards.

The Need for Further Research and Monitoring

The findings in various studies on emulsifier health effects highlight the need for further investigation. Determining the quantities of additive consumption over long periods is a must. Metabolic consequences may differ, as metabolisms and sensitivities are diverse.

Moreover, regulatory bodies need to boost efforts in testing food emulsifiers. The FDA classifies some food additives including P80 as Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS). E466 is also approved for use in various foods at up to 2.0 percent. There should be long-term monitoring of these food emulsifiers for their effects on chronic health conditions.

Consumers, for their part, should be more cautious when it comes to food selection. Using fresh ingredients and minimizing processed food intake are recommended. Furthermore, the practice of reading product labels will help consumers avoid questionable substances.



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