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What are emulsifiers? 

Emulsifiers are substances that stabilize mixtures which would otherwise separate. 

Emulsifiers have both water-soluble and fat-soluble portions, which allows them to form a bond between mixtures with opposing properties. This feature allows oils and water to combine in a solution.

What are emulsifiers in food? 

Emulsifiers are used in foods to prevent oil and water from separating. The use of emulsifiers in food creates a higher quality, smoother product. They can be derived from plant, animal, or synthetic sources. Examples of emulsifiers include monoglycerides, diglycerides, lecithin, and polysorbates. 

A classic example of an animal derived emulsifier is egg yolk. In mayonnaise, the lecithin (emulsifying agent) in egg yolk stabilizes the vinegar and oil mixture to create a cohesive product. Other foods that may use emulsifiers include ice cream, chocolates, breads, baked products, sauces, and processed meats. 

What emulsifies fat? 

Emulsification facilitates fat digestion in the digestive tract. A substance called bile, which is created in the liver and stored in the gallbladder, releases into the small intestine when fat is present. The bile has both water-soluble and fat-soluble properties, making it an emulsifier. Bile helps break up fat molecules into smaller fat particles, helping disperse the fat in the watery contents of the small intestine. 

What are natural emulsifiers? 

The most common natural emulsifier found in food is lecithin. It can be derived from soybeans or egg yolks. Emulsifiers including lecithin are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

Are emulsifiers healthy?

There is limited research on how emulsifiers affect human health. If individuals wish to avoid emulsifiers, they can reference the nutrition label ingredient list found on packaged foods and limit consumption of processed foods.

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Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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