By Mahalakshmi*

For centuries, people have improved the appearance, taste, texture, and shelf life of foods by adding substances such as flavours, preservatives, and emulsifiers. In recent decades, global consumption of food additives has increased due to the demand for convenient products with extended shelf lives, leading to a rise in ultra-processed foods. Emulsifiers are crucial in various industries, serving as essential ingredients that stabilize and maintain emulsion uniformity. These compounds possess unique chemical properties that allow them to bridge the gap between immiscible substances like oil and water, facilitating stable mixtures. Recently, food additive emulsifiers have drawn attention due to preliminary research suggesting their potential implication in inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome. 

An emulsion forms when microscopic droplets of one immiscible  liquid are dispersed within another immiscible liquid, resulting in a heterogeneous suspension. Without the presence of a food additive emulsifier, the creation of an emulsion requires the application of physical force to agitate the oil and water phases, encouraging dispersion. This can be achieved, for instance, by vigorously whisking oil and water together. However, emulsions formed in this manner are inherently unstable and tend to separate back into their distinct phases over time. For instance, mayonnaise can separate over time, leaving oil on top and vinegar at the bottom. To prevent such separation and maintain emulsion stability in food products, food additive emulsifiers are commonly used.

Food additive emulsifiers are defined by the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India as a food additive, which forms or maintains a uniform emulsion of two or more phases in a food.

Food additive emulsifiers contain both hydrophilic and hydrophobic components, thereby decreasing the inter-facial tension between oil and water phases, leading to emulsion stability.

According to the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India, the technical purpose of emulsifiers is Emulsification, plasticization, dispersion, surface action, inhibition of crystallization, density adjustment (flavouring oils in beverages), suspension and clouding.

Although there are no universally recognized categories for emulsifier types or structures, some have grouped emulsifiers into three broad classes: (1) low-molecular-weight emulsifiers, also known as small-molecule surfactants, (2) amphiphilic biopolymers, and (3) solid or colloidal particles.

Commonly used emulsifiers include mustard, soy, and egg lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, polysorbates, carrageenan, guar gum, and canola oil.

Foods that commonly use emulsifiers:

  • Margarine and reduced fat spreads
  • Mayonnaise
  • Chocolate
  • Ice cream and other frozen dessert blends.
  • Bread
  • Baked products.
  • Creamy sauces
  • Processed meats

Do emulsifiers pose a threat to gut health?

Considering the widespread presence of food additive emulsifiers in the food supply and the probability of increased intake due to the rising consumption of ultra-processed foods, it is crucial to continually assess the safety of these additives. Evaluation of emerging data regarding their chemical and biological properties, toxicological impacts, and concentrations in foods is necessary. Numerous studies have delved into the health implications of emulsifiers, examining factors such as disruption of gut microbiota, inflammation, and the development of metabolic syndrome.

In a 2020 publication in Nature, researchers examined the impact of dietary emulsifiers on intestinal permeability and metabolic health in mice. Their findings revealed that consuming emulsifiers disrupted the integrity of the intestinal epithelial barrier, resulting in heightened permeability and systemic inflammation. Similarly, a study published in the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2023 presented conclusive evidence highlighting the adverse effects of food emulsifiers P20 (polysorbate) and P80 (polysorbate) on intestinal epithelial integrity and inflammation.

The experimental doses of emulsifiers administered in animal models frequently exceed the typical exposure levels observed in humans. Consequently, there is an urgent need for further human studies to validate the involvement of emulsifiers in gut inflammation.

Market Scenario

In India, the bakery and dairy sectors stand out as the leading consumers of emulsifiers, with no detectable presence of these additives in segments such as snacks, soups, and seasoning. Over 100 suppliers, including Sunnutra SNF, Fine Organics, and KP Manish, cater to the emulsifier market in the country. India has a prominent position in the soybean market, with government regulations prohibiting the cultivation and import of GMO soy products, as enforced by FSSAI. Consequently, only 100% non-GMO soy lecithin is produced domestically.

Key emulsifiers in use include Soy lecithin, MDG, DATEM, and modified starch. Indian consumers exhibit a preference for affordable and energy-rich products, often unaware of clean-label alternatives. End-use companies tend to perceive products devoid of e-numbers and INS numbers as clean labels.

To meet this demand, companies source clean-label emulsifiers, such as citrus fibre, from local traders like Anshul Life Science, who import them from suppliers such as Herba Food Ingredients.

Evolving Trends in Emulsifiers

In today’s market, there’s a noticeable surge in demand for emulsifiers that not only deliver functionality but also align with sustainability goals and clean label preferences. Derived from renewable sources like plant oils (such as sunflower lecithin) or agricultural by-products (like citrus pectin), emulsifiers are gaining popularity due to their eco-friendly production methods and reduced environmental impact.

Researchers at IIT Madras have found a natural and sustainable solution to stabilize emulsions by using a milky-white sap collected from the latex-bearing plant Calotropis procera.

Emulsifiers made through microbial fermentation, like Rhamnolipids, are becoming popular because they offer a sustainable and scalable option compared to traditional sources.

There’s a notable emergence of microbial and fermentation-derived emulsifiers, such as Rhamnolipids, providing sustainable and scalable alternatives to traditional sources. Nano-emulsions, with their ultrafine droplet sizes, are undergoing development to enhance the delivery and bioavailability of active ingredients across various formulations.

Emulsifiers are also evolving to offer multifunctional properties or customized designs to meet specific formulation needs. For instance, amphiphilic polymers, engineered with hydrophilic and hydrophobic segments, serve as versatile emulsifiers in numerous applications.

Furthermore, there’s a rising interest in emulsifiers incorporating natural antioxidants, like tocopherol-based emulsifiers derived from vitamin E. These antioxidants not only extend shelf-life and improve stability but also provide health benefits, particularly in food formulations.

About the author: Mahalakshmi is a research analyst at F1rstmr. She holds a master’s degree in Food Technology and Management. Her research projects include Potato Starch and Probiotics. She can be contacted at mahalakshmi@firstmr.com.