There are certain ingredients many of you could identify as unhealthy. Artificial sweeteners, trans fats, BPAs and GMOs are likely on your radar. However, a study in Nature raised health and weight concerns for a group of ingredients you may not even know about. Do emulsifiers ring a bell? I’ll be totally honest, I had to think back to Food Science classes…mayo is an emulsification. Without nerding out emulsifications are mixtures where one substance is suspended in another.
In mayo, the egg emulsify or combine things.
But egg yolks are natural emulsifiers, this recent study (and a couple prior) honed in on chemical emulsifiers. These additives are used in many products for texture and to extend shelf life.
I talk a lot about probiotics; kombucha, kefir, miso and apple cider vinegar are Foodtrainers’ staples. Having more good bacteria can improve our mood, immunity and weight. But what if something prevalent in healthy food is harming gut bacteria? Yup, that’s what these chemical emulsifiers do and the net effect they have on out gut results in impaired satiety signals. When you are less satisfied you eat more. We do not need any assistance in the “eat more” department.
So what are these emulsifiers called? There are a ton of chemical emulsifiers- many have the word “gum” in the name. The two emulsifiers tested in this study were
polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose. You will sometimes see polysorbate 80 called “tween 80” and the other one is abbreviated CMC or listed as cellulose gum.
Look for “tween” in ice cream, puddings, vitamins, chewing gum and condiments
Cellulose gum in used in lowfat cookies, and jelly. What’s really sneaky is cellulose is listed as a fiber but this is not a good fiber.
In the study, these emulsifiers were given to rats with a compromised GI system and previously healthy rats. The rats with preexisting GI issues developed full blown colits and the “normal” rats gained weight. Some studies test amounts that far exceed what is typically consumed…not this time. These effects were seen with commonly consumed quantities. I’d like to take a moment to say…FDA seriously? You’ve deemed these safe? Let’s reexamine your testing methods.
In all fairness, only two emulsifiers (or gums) were tested. It is unclear if all emulsifiers have the same issues associated with them. The only emulsifier on my radar, prior to reading this, was carrageenan. Carrageenan has received a ton of bad PR. It has has been a concern as it has GI side effects (upsets your stomach) and because it’s a possible carcinogen. Perhaps the GI side effects occur because carrageenan acts like Tween and Cellulose gum messing with our good bacteria?
A lot of the coverage of this study talked about the prevalence of chemical emulsifiers in processed foods. If you aren’t big on processed foods don’t be relieved as these thickeners are also used in dairy free and gluten free foods. And we all blame sugar for increasing obesity rates following the fat free phase/ 90s…however, chemical emulsifiers are found in most “fat free” foods too. I examined the labels in our fridge and found two items with gums in them. Our gluten free bread had xanthan gum and organic cream cheese had “organic” locust bean gum. I reached out to the bread company and the owner told me she wasn’t concerned as the bread was one of the only sources of gums in her diet. I’m not sure I agree and urged her to look at the study.
What should you do? Look at the ingredients on packages in your pantry and fridge. If you see cellulose gum OR tween 80…I’d certainly toss those. I’d also encourage you to contact companies using these ingredients. Carageenan has been pulled from many products as a result of customer concern. Further studies need to test other gums so that we can assess their safety. One more vote against ingredients we cannot pronounce.
Have emulsifiers been on your radar? Any products you consume that have gums in them? Will you avoid them going forward?