If you read your food labels (and you should!) you’ve no doubt come across the term “emulsifiers.” What are emulsifiers? What do they do? And, importantly, are they vegan?
Short answer: emulsifiers are food additives that are common in many different manufactured foods. Emulsifiers bind fats and water together, which makes otherwise unstable foods stable. They can also improve taste and texture.
There are several plant based emulsifiers, but there are also emulsifiers that are derived from animal protein. There are synthetic emulsifiers, semi-synthetic emulsifiers, and natural emulsifiers, too.
Want to learn more?
- What are Emulsifiers and What are They Used For?
- Are all Emulsifiers Vegan?
- How to Spot Emulsifiers in Food Labels
- Are Emulsifiers Safe?
- A List of Vegan Emulsifiers
- How do Plant-Based Emulsifiers Fare Nutritionally?
- Final Thoughts
What are Emulsifiers and What are They Used For?
Emulsions are solutions of fat in water.
You probably already know that fat and water don’t mix. If you want to see this for yourself, add a few drops of oil to a glass of water. The oil doesn’t dissolve. Rather, it floats on top. Emulsifiers are what hold the fat and water together in a stable solution.
Emulsifiers are one of the most ubiquitous types of food additives. They help many of the foods we enjoy to hold together, and to look and taste better. Some emulsifiers, like the lecithin in chocolate, improve a food’s texture or “mouthfeel.” Some may even make foods healthier to eat. You’ll also find emulsifiers in cosmetics.
The Three Main Types Of Emulsifier
There are three main types of emulsifier: lecithin, esters of monoglycerides of fatty acids, and mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids.
Lecithins are used in salad dressings, some baked goods, and chocolate. Esters of monoglycerides of fatty acids appear most often in ice cream, cakes, and crisps. You’ll find mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids in bread, cake, and margarine.
All three of the emulsifier types in food products can come from either animal or plant sources.
What Emulsifiers Do
What does an emulsifier do, exactly? An emulsifier can fulfill many different functions. Some are better for some cooking tasks than others. Here are some of the most important ones:
Some emulsifiers make a thin solution thicker, for example, sauces and gravies. Some common vegan friendly emulsifiers for thickening foods include cornstarch, guar gum, locust bean gum, and carrageenan.
Binding agents help molecules to stick together that normally wouldn’t, such as fat and water.
Many emulsifiers form a stable emulsion, and help emulsions to keep their form at room temperature. Some common stabilizers include guar gum, gum Arabic, locust bean gum, and gellan gum.
Improving the texture of a food, or giving that food a specific texture, is another one of the jobs that emulsifiers do.
Other emulsifiers, like agar-agar, can give a liquid a jelly-like consistency.
Are all Emulsifiers Vegan?
No. The three main types of emulsifiers can be either plant based or animal derived. That’s why, if you want to avoid animal based emulsifiers, it’s important to look for foods that specify that they are vegan or contain plant based emulsifiers.
Also keep in mind that some emulsifiers, natural or otherwise, are more sustainable than others. In addition, some emulsifiers, both natural and synthetic, present health concerns.
How to Spot Emulsifiers in Food Labels
Emulsifiers are typically a named ingredient in food ingredient lists. The following are examples of emulsifiers:
- Cellulose gum
- Citric acid esters of monoglyceride
- CSL, or calcium stearoyl lactylate
- Gellan gum
- Glycerol monolaurate
- Glyceryl monostearate
- Guar gum
- Gum Arabic
- Lactic acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids
- Locust Bean Gum
- Mono- and Diglycerides
- Mustard powder
- PEG (Polyethylene Glycol)
- PG ester (PGME)
- Polysorbate 80
- PPG (Polypropylene Glycol)
- Sodium potassium tartrate
- Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate
- Sorbitans (monostearate, tristearate, etc.)
- Stearic acid
- Whey protein
- Xanthan gum
Are Emulsifiers Safe?
Emulsifiers that are used in commercial food products sold in the United States are approved by the FDA and are generally considered safe. There are some studies, however, that suggest that caution is warranted when it comes to specific emulsifiers (as opposed to emulsifiers in general).
First, people with food allergies or sensitivities should avoid ingredients made from things that trigger these sensitivities. For example, people with soy allergies should avoid soy lecithin.
But there are some emulsifiers that could be dangerous in and of themselves.
A 2019 study published in Nature found that when mice were fed two specific dietary emulsifiers, Polysorbate 80 and Carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), it changed the gut microbiota of the mice, caused inflammation, contributed to obesity, and resulted in changes in social behavior.
A 2015 study suggested that these same emulsifiers may have a role in inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome.
Results of a 2022 study further strengthened the ties between Polysorbate 80 and Carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) consumption and anxiety.
And then there’s carrageenan.
Carrageenan, a vegan emulsifier made from seaweed, has been linked to certain digestive problems, including colon cancer. The FDA still considers carrageenan to be safe, though the USDA Organics Board has removed it from its approved list.
In short: many dietary emulsifiers are safe. However, you might consider caution when it comes to Polysorbate 80, Carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), and Carrageenan.
A List of Vegan Emulsifiers
Fortunately, if you want a vegan friendly emulsifier, there are a lot of choices. Plant proteins such as soy are increasingly an emulsifier source. Also, many vegans use specific fruits and plant products as an emulsifier in certain types of cooking.
Here’s a selection of popular vegan emulsifiers:
Agar agar (E406) is an emulsifier made from red algae. It’s commonly used as a substitute for gelatin in certain foods.
Agar agar (or, simply, agar) forms a firm jelly when boiled in liquids. It’s a common ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and can be used to make jellied desserts and custards without using animal products.
You can find agar-agar sold as a powder, as flakes, or in strips.
Like applesauce, you might not find bananas used commonly in commercial foods as an emulsifier. However, a large number of vegan recipes use bananas as an egg replacer. Bananas are high in sugar, though, so factor this into your recipe.
Carageenan is extracted from a type of red seaweed. Like agar-agar, it can be used as a natural gelling agent and a substitute for gelatin. It’s also used as a thickener and a stabilizer.
Carageenan is natural and suitable for vegan diets. However, some studies have linked it to various types of digestive problems, so for this reason, some people question how healthy it is.
Common cornstarch is a vegan emulsifier derived from, you guessed it, corn. It can be used to stabilize and thicken foods like gravies and sauces. It can also replace agar-agar in some recipes, when agar is unavailable.
The proteins in egg yolks have some amino acids that repel water, and some that attract it. For this reason, eggs are a natural emulsifier in baking. They’re also important for making certain types of sauces like mayonnaise or hollandaise.
For vegans, though, eggs and egg yolk are off the menu.
Applesauce isn’t technically an emulsifier, and it’s not commonly used this way in commercial foods. However, numerous vegan baking recipes use applesauce to replace eggs. Applesauce can add moisture and help to bind two liquids, such as oil and water, together.
Citric acid occurs naturally in citrus fruits. In ice cream, it can be used as an emulsifying agent to keep fats from separating. It can also be used to keep sucrose from crystallizing. In some recipes, you can use it as a flavoring agent, to replace lemon juice.
Gellan gum is a semi-synthetic, vegan friendly emulsifier synthesized from plants through a process of bacterial fermentation. It’s commonly used as a stabilizer, gelling agent, and texturizing agent. It’s also used to stabilize vitamins in fortified plant based beverages.
Common places you might find gellan gum include plant milks, chewing gum, fillings for baked goods, jams, jellies, gluten free pastas, sauces, spreads, and more.
Guar gum is a galactomannan polysaccharide extracted from guar beans. In food, it’s typically used as a thickener and stabilizer.
Gum Arabic (also known as acacia gum, Arabic gum, gum acacia, acacia, Senegal gum, Indian gum, and others) comes from the combined sap of two species of wild acacia trees. It’s primarily used as a stabilizer.
Studies suggest that gum arabic has a range of health benefits , which may include:
- Improved absorption of calcium from the gastrointestinal tract
- Anti-diabetes protection
- Lowering body mass index
- Decreased total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides level
- Antioxidant properties
- And more
Locust Bean Gum
You might recognize the humble carob bean as a chocolate substitute. It’s also the source of locust bean gum, which is extracted from the seeds.
Locust bean gum is used as a gelling agent and a thickener.
Mustard powder is a natural vegan emulsifier that is made from mustard seeds. When mustard seeds are ground, the mucilage, protein, and carbohydrates coat fat particles. This, in turn, allows fat and water to form an emulsion.
Lecithins can come either from animals or from plants. Lecithin is amphophilic, which means that they they attract both oil and water particles. This, in turn, can help to form an emulsion.
Vegan lecithin most commonly comes from either soybean oil, rapeseed oil. cottonseed oil, or sunflower oil.
Stearic acid can have either animal origin or plant origin. When it’s of animal origin, it comes from animal fat. Vegan stearic acid, however, comes from vegetable oil.
Xanthan gum is a synthetic thickener, emulsifier, and stabilizer. It’s manufacturing process involves bacterial fermentation of plant based simple sugars. Xanthan gum thickens and stabilizes liquids, and adds viscosity.
How do Plant-Based Emulsifiers Fare Nutritionally?
Emulsifiers are a complicated question.
There are a dizzying number of them, both from synthetic and natural ingredients. In addition, many of them can come from either animal origin or plant based sources.
The FDA considers all emulsifiers on its approved list to be safe. However, recent studies have called into question the safety of three in particular: carrageenan, Polysorbate 80, and Carboxymethylcellulose (CMC).
Gum Arabic, on the other hand, may have some real benefits for our health.
It’s easy to vilify an entire class of food additives based on the downsides of a few individual members of that class. However, there are hundreds of compounds that are used as emulsifiers in the food industry. The vast majority are considered safe.
And emulsifiers give many of our favorite foods the stability and texture that we love.
Plant based emulsifiers have the benefit of avoiding harm to animals. And many of us prefer natural to synthetic ingredients on general principle. However, as with the case of carrageenan, neither plant origin nor natural ingredients are a guarantee of healthfulness.
One must, as always, do one’s own research.
Emulsifiers are a complicated class of ingredients. But when it comes to stabilizing foods and producing certain textures, they’re the right tool for the job.
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About The Author:
Jess Faraday is a vegetarian from a family of vegetarians. A recent vegan, she wants to spread the word about the benefits of plant-based eating for health, for animals, and for the planet.
- Food Additives and Ingredients Association (FAIA) | Emulsifiers in Food | https://www.faia.org.uk/emulsifiers-in-food/
- PMC | Table of Emulsifiers | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6899614/table/nbu12408-tbl-0002/?report=objectonly
- Holder, M., et ali | Dietary Emulsifier Consumption Alters Anxiety-like and Social-Related Behaviors in Mice in a Sex-Dependent Manner | https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-36890-3
- Chassaing, B. et ali | Dietary Emulsifiers Impact the Mouse Gut Microbiota Promoting Colitis and Metabolic Syndrome | https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14232
- Arnold, A. et ali | Dietary Emulsifier Consumption Alters Gene Expression in the Amygdala and Paraventricular Nucleus of the Hypothalamus in Mice | https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-13021-7
- Healthline | Carageenan | Should You Remove Carageenan From Your Diet? | https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/carrageenan
- BBC Good Food | Agar Agar | https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/glossary/agar-agar-glossary
- Ahmed, A. | 16 Health Benefits of Gum Arabic and Medical Uses | https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128120026000166