Are Emulsifiers Safe To Eat? Everything You Need To Know About These Tricky Additives
Carrageenan. Lecithin. Guar gum. Xanthan gum. Locust bean gum.
Not exactly ancient ingredients, are they? Used extensively in food manufacturing, these emulsifiers are additives that help stabilize food. Multisyllabic emulsifiers were certainly not in my Yiayia’s kitchen, and I can only assume you have the same questions as I do: what are they, and are they safe to eat?
The answers are complicated. Commonly found in prepackaged and processed foods, emulsifiers help ingredients that don’t want to stick together, like oil and water, to combine. They can have multiple purposes such as reducing stickiness, controlling crystallization, and improving texture.
Yes, many emulsifiers are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Yes, studies confirm that they’re generally safe in small amounts. But that doesn’t mean they can’t potentially wreak havoc on your health.
Read labels and do your research
One of the easiest ways you can take charge of your health is by reading labels and prioritizing nourishing, healthful ingredients. I was shocked to learn how many emulsifiers are in the food products many of us love and consider safe or organic. From dairy and vegan products to healthy snacks and gluten-free bread, emulsifiers are everywhere. So read those labels! If there’s a mystery ingredient, stay curious! Research, find brands you can trust, and avoid overly processed foods.
The most common emulsifiers found in food
- Carrageenan: A widely used thickener and emulsifier, carrageenan is extracted from Chondrus crispus, a red seaweed known as Irish moss. Carrageenan is used to improve the texture of ice cream, yogurt, soy milk, and other processed foods.
- Lecithin:. Better known as soy lecithin, it works to suspend fats and oils from mixing with other substances. Although naturally found in eggs, much of the lecithin added to foods comes from soybean or sunflower oil. It is commonly used in chocolate bars to bind the cocoa solids, sugar and milk so they stick to the cocoa butter. (Kosterina EVOO Chocolate bars are of course free of lecithins).
- Guar gum: Made from the guar bean, guar gum is used to stabilize, emulsify and thicken the texture of foods. With eight times the thickening potency as cornstarch, guar gum is often used as a binding agent in gluten-free products.
- Xanthan gum: Created when sugar is fermented by a type of bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris, xanthan gum can improve the texture, flavor, and the shelf life of many foods.
Why you should limit consuming emulsifiers
From producing olive oil that's high in polyphenols to understanding the research behind "Power 9", a set of lifestyle habits that people of the Blue Zones have in common—living a little better each and every day is at the very core of who we are at Kosterina.
Because emulsifiers are widespread, they tend to build up in most American’s bodies. It is especially important for those with gastrointestinal issues or allergies to be aware that emulsifiers can carry negative health consequences and could be the cause of their symptoms.
- Carrageenan provides no nutritional value. A study by researchers in Canada and at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in 2017 found that consuming carrageenan can lead to ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
- Soy lecithin is often genetically modified. A study published in the "Journal of Applied Toxicology" discovered that mice fed GM soybean developed a decrease in pancreatic function. Additionally, soy lecithin contains a compound called genistein that may have a negative effect on fertility and reproduction.
- Both guar gum and xanthan gum have been known to cause gastrointestinal discomfort. Studies have shown that they can potentially contribute to digestion issues and stomach irritation.
Bring on the good stuff: minimal ingredients, maximum benefits
Now that we’re aware of what the potentially harmful side effects of emulsifiers can be, let’s pivot to the good stuff. Below are some of our favorite brands who are just as committed as we are to bringing emulsifier- and food additive free-products to the market.
- Kite Hill: Self-identified “plant based artisans,” this company produces a range of foods like yogurts, cheeses, pastas, dips and spreads.
- Santa Cruz Organic: A pioneer organic brand, they offer more than 50 organic items ranging from fruit juices and lemonades to sauces, syrups, peanut butters and spreads.
- Elmhurst: Producing a range of vegan milks, Elmhurst touts their unique HydroRelease™ method, which allows them to use more of the source grain, nut, or seed.
Of course, consuming foods without unwanted additives is only one part of a healthy lifestyle—that’s why I avoid it in my skincare routine, too. (Kosterina skin care has been formulated completely emulsifier-free). To get the first look at other brands and products I love (and trust), be sure to sign up for the Kosterina newsletter.