Do I Need to Avoid Emulsifiers?
Updated: Sep 13
The safety of emulsifiers in food is a topic of ongoing research and discussion. Emulsifiers are substances that help combine two things that would not naturally combine, such as oil and water, by reducing the surface tension between them. They are commonly used in various processed foods and beverages to improve texture, give a creamy mouthfeel, prevent separation, and enhance shelf life.
While emulsifiers are generally recognised as safe by regulatory authorities such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), there have been concerns raised regarding their potential health effects. Some studies conducted on animals and in cell cultures have suggested that certain emulsifiers may disrupt the gut microbiota, promote inflammation, and contribute to the development of metabolic disorders.
Emulsifiers are mainly present in processed foods, and in general, healthy eating guidance includes limiting intake of processed foods in the diet in favour of more wholefoods and natural foods. Having the occasional intake of foods that contain emulsifiers is not something that healthy people should be too concerned about. As results of human studies come in we will learn more about the relationship between emulsifier use and health but the research to date has been mostly lab studies and so not necessarily applicable to humans.
If you have specific concerns about emulsifiers or any other food additives, it's a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian who can provide personalised advice based on your health status and dietary needs. Additionally, maintaining a balanced and varied diet, focusing on whole foods, can help reduce overall exposure to food additives.
Three reasons why we don’t need to be overly alarmed about a normal level of emulsifiers in our diet
Regulatory approval: food items are not given a green light until proven harmful, they have to be proven not harmful before they are allowed to enter our food supply chain. Both the FDA and EFSA have approved emulsifiers as safe for consumption when used within acceptable levels.
Widespread use without significant issues: Emulsifiers have been used in food products for many years, and their widespread use has not led to significant adverse effects on public health. While research continues to explore potential health impacts, the fact that emulsifiers have been consumed by millions of people over an extended period without clear evidence of harm provides some reassurance
Dietary exposure levels: Emulsifiers are typically used in small amounts in food products. When consumed as part of a balanced diet, the overall exposure to emulsifiers is relatively low and the body will be able to process, dilute and eliminate these.
Why are people talking about emulsifiers?
Human studies on emulsifiers are limited, and most of the research conducted so far has focused on animal studies or in vitro (laboratory) experiments. However, there are a few human studies that have examined the effects of emulsifiers. It's important to note that the findings from these studies are preliminary, and further research is needed to draw definitive conclusions.
A landmark study published in the journal Nature in 2015 (Chassaing et al) investigated the impact of two commonly used emulsifiers, carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) and polysorbate-80, on gut microbiota in mice. The study found that these emulsifiers led to changes in the gut bacteria composition and promoted low-grade inflammation and hunger, impaired glycaemic control and obesity in mice.
A study from the same group published in the journal Microbiome (Naimi et al 2021) examined the effects 20 different emulsifiers on the human gut microbiome. Both carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate 80 had a negative effect on microbiota composition and function. While many of the other 18 additives tested had similar impacts, some, such as lecithin, did not significantly impact microbiota in this model. Carrageenans and gums seemed to have marked negative effects on the microbiota, altering microbiota density, composition, and promoting inflammation.
A 2013 paper published in the Journal of Crohn’s and Colitis (Roberts et al) has shown positive correlations between emulsifier consumption and Crohn’s disease incidence in Europe, North America, and Japan
For now, guidelines do recommend that people with inflammatory bowel disease should consider minimising intake of the emulsifiers carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), polysorbate-80, and carrageenan and research is ongoing into the mechanisms of dietary emulsifiers in gut inflammation in humans so for these patients we may err on the side of caution for now.
However, there is no evidence that eating a normal intake of emulsifiers as part of a healthy balanced diet should be of concern to healthy individuals. So, keep processed or treat foods as occasional indulgences, check the food labels of the foods you consume regularly so you’re aware and otherwise eat a balanced diet with plenty of fibre and don’t worry too much about emulsifiers!