Emulsifiers are substances that bond two otherwise un-mixable substances together. Think about mixing oil and water. You can shake the two together, forming droplets of oil in the liquid, but once you let them settle, they will always separate. An emulsifier molecule has an end that bonds to oil (hydrophobic head) and an end that bonds to water (hydrophilic tail). This makes emulsifiers a key ingredient in many foods whose shelf lives depend on combining substances that would otherwise separate.
But these same emulsifiers in now-ubiquitous processed foods could be contributing to chronic inflammatory disease and other problems in our digestive tracts. In a study published in Nature in 2015, researchers at Georgia State University fed the common emulsifiers polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulsose to laboratory mice, which then developed inflammation, inflammatory bowel disease, and other conditions. Funded by the National Institutes of Health and Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, advocates point to this kind of research in calling for changes in the process for reviewing how food additives are approved in the United States.
Meanwhile, there are ways you can limit these food additives in your diet. Becoming a great label reader is key! These are some of the additional names that emulsifiers may go by on your food label:
- Monoglyceride (MG)
- Acetylated : Monoglyceride (AMG)
- Lactylated Monoglyceride (LMG)
- Carboxymethylcellulose or cellulose gum
- Citric Acid Esters of Monoglycerides (CMG)
- Succinic Acid Esters of Monoglycerides (SMG)
- Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Monoglycerides (DATEM)
- Polyglycerol Esters of Fatty Acids (PGE)
- Polysorbate 60, 80
- Sorbitan Esters of Fatty Acids (Sorbitan Ester)
- Propylene Glycol Esters of Fatty Acids (PG Ester)
- Sucrose Esters of Fatty Acids (Sucrose Ester)
- Calcium Stearoyl-2-Lactate (CSL)
- Lecithin (LC)
- Enzyme Treated Lecithin / Enzyme Digested Lecithin (LC)
These products are most often found in packaged foods like mayonnaise, salad dressing, soft drinks, baked goods, creamer, cream sauces, and even chocolate. There are alternatives but finding them may not be as easy as it sounds, and they can, according to some experts, affect the shelf life, taste, or texture of the foods.
If you are concerned about eliminating emulsifiers from your diet, the best way to do so is to drastically reduce the amount of processed foods you consume. Not only will this help to limit emulsifiers, but it will also help you manage other problems, reducing your intake of salts and saturated fats, limiting other unneeded additives, and avoiding unnecessary sugar in your diet.
As often as possible, choose organic foods in their natural state. Eat organic fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean meats. Grass fed organic beef, wild line-caught fish such as salmon, and organic poultry or pork are great options that are not full of chemicals. You can make your own salad dressings too — a little organic extra virgin olive oil, your favorite fresh herbs, and a splash of lemon juice can be delicious. We try to follow the rule to cook our breakfast and dinner at home at least five or six days per week, and then pack lunches with these healthy foods. This is the best way to know exactly what you are feeding your family.
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Jennifer Rackley is a nutritionist and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and has done graduate work in public health and nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.