Are Emulsifiers Making You Sick?

By March 3, 2015Featured, Nutrition

Do you read all the ingredients in the products that you eat? Do you ever find ingredients that you don’t recognize? If so, you’re in luck! This week, I want to take a look at a group of food additives known as emulsifiers and examine their effect on your health.

What is an emulsifier?

Just to give you a quick chemistry refresher, an emulsifier is any substance that encourages the suspension of one liquid in another, like with oil and water.

As you probably remember, oil and water will naturally separate, but an emulsifier will keep them together, ensuring a consistent texture.

How can I spot emulsifiers?

You can find emulsifiers in most processed foods by looking at the ingredients list on the food label. It will show up under the names:

  • polysorbate 80
  • lecithin
  • carrageenan
  • polyglycerols
  • xanthan gum
  • guar gum
  • arabic gum
  • acacia gum

These ingredients are added to foods to help prevent separation, improve texture, and prolong shelf-life. They’re commonly found in products like ice cream, baked goods, salad dressings, some non-dairy milks, veggie burgers, and various packaged snacks.

Are emulsifiers making you sick?

Until recently, food additives like emulsifiers and stabilizers were often thought to be harmless. In school, we were never really taught anything about the impact these additives could have on health.

Rather, they were thought to be great technological advances in food science and praised for their abilities to increase shelf-life.

However, a recent animal study in Nature has demonstrated a direct correlation between emulsifiers and inflammatory conditions such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, and colitis. In this study, scientists discovered that emulsifiers have the ability to alter gut bacteria (via bacterial translocation).

It may seem insignificant or unrelated, but growing evidence (link) suggests that gut bacteria can play a central role in your overall health. This is why I strongly recommend soil-based probiotics to all of my clients, even if they don’t have issues with digestion.

Emulsifiers and gut health

Researchers state, “These results support emerging evidence that altered gut bacteria can lead to low-grade inflammation in the gut, resulting in increased fat storage and metabolic changes.

Furthermore, these results suggest that the broad use of emulsifying agents might be contributing to the increased incidence of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and other chronic diseases.”

These findings may help explain why many people notice drastic health improvements when they cut processed foods out of their diets.

This could also explain why some people (with or without celiac disease) do not find 100% relief from a gluten-free diet, as many gluten-free snacks require emulsifiers to compensate for the lack of gluten.

To clarify, I am not suggesting that gluten is harmless or healthy, but rather that sensitive individuals and those with celiac disease  may benefit from reducing their consumption of processed gluten-free products, especially products containing emulsifiers.

Conclusion

If you want to strengthen your immune system and keep your health in tip-top shape, then it’s generally a good idea to cut back on processed foods.

You don’t have to remove all processed foods from your diet, as that may not be practical for many people, but do your best to limit your consumption. Instead, choose fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds whenever possible.

In addition to fresher foods and fewer additives, you can also support your gut health by taking soil-based probiotics.

When shopping for baked goods, packaged snacks, non-dairy milks, protein powders, and salad dressings, look for products without:

  • polysorbate 80
  • lecithin (soy or sunflower)
  • carrageenan
  • polyglycerols
  • xanthan and other gums

Emulsifiers can be found in many reduced-fat, fat-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free products. If you avoid dairy or gluten for any reason, be sure to read the ingredients listed on the packaging before buying a product.

For example, Blue Diamond almond milk contains carrageenan, but Silk almond milk does not. You never know which brands will use emulsifiers and which ones go without, so try to get into the habit of reading the ingredients, as they may vary from brand to brand.

Again, it may not be possible to avoid emulsifiers completely, but if you’re having issues with digestion or immune health, then you may want to limit your consumption of processed foods.

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