What it is?
Dietary emulsifiers are a food additive commonly used to alter flavour, or improve texture, shelf life and stability of foods. Common emulsifiers found in food include: sodium carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), Polysorbate 80 (P80), carrageenan, lecithin, mono-and di- glycerides, gum arabic. Without emulsifier’s food products like ice cream, salad dressings, yogurt would not exist! Emulsifiers can also be naturally occurring and plant based or synthesized from naturally occurring compounds. These emulsifiers cannot be digested or hydrolyzed by enzymes in our gastrointestinal tract and our gut microbiota will ferment these into SCFA (short chain fatty acids) and other metabolites that are either absorbed or stay in our gastrointestinal tract where they stimulate growth of certain bacterial groups. But are these dietary emulsifiers damaging our gut and our health?
Where it’s found?
Used in food industry increasingly and can be found in mainly processed foods including: margarine, coffee whiteners, sport drinks, candy, ice cream, jam, fruit syrups, frozen desserts, salad dressings, cereals, gum, supplements and the list goes on!
Impact on our body?
These dietary emulsifiers can potentially influence the mucous barrier of our gastrointestinal tract, which is a prominent feature of intestinal inflammation. Once the mucous barrier is disrupted, bacteria will migrate towards the mucosa. Changes to the integrity of our gut mucosa will increase bacterial translocation and cause an inflammatory response. Since emulsifiers cannot be digested or hydrolyzed by enzymes in our gastrointestinal tract they will be fermented into SCFA and other metabolites that may also modulate the gut microbiota and may increase the pro inflammatory bacteria. Our gut microbiota is heavily impacted by our diet but is also affected by other external conditions including living conditions, use of antibiotics/probiotics, age, stress, method of birth etc.
What does the research say?
There has been a double blinded trial that showed those with Ulcerative Colitis (a type of IBD) on a carrageenan free diet (dietary emulsifier) had lower relapse rates than those who were given capsules of carrageenan. This is not the only factor that will impact Ulcerative Colitis and there are many other nutritional components to consider first that may play a bigger role!
A study completed on mice that showed CMC (sodium carboxymethylcellulose) can induce enterocolitis that resembles colitis of IBD in humans.
Limitations to these studies are that they have been mainly completed in vitro and in vivo models with intakes much higher than daily human exposure.
So should you be avoiding all emulsifiers….and like most answers in nutrition research it depends! This depends on you’re your health and diet and what is important to you! The research is still inconclusive as it has shown the food emulsifiers have no impact while other research shows that certain emulsifiers are damaging to our gut.
My recommendation: FOCUS ON WHOLE FOODS AND LIMIT PROCESSED FOODS. Not only will this help reduce your intake of these dietary emulsifiers, this will also help increase your intake of micronutrients, healthy fats, and fibre! Think of it as adding whole foods to your diet rather than restricting or limiting your intake of other foods. By focusing on what you can add to your diet, this will help make a positive impact on our diverse microbiota.