Emulsifiers are food additives commonly used to keep processed foods stable on the shelf. They are added to blend oily and water-based ingredients in processing of foods to keep them consistently mixed so they do not separate. Scan the ingredients on almost any processed food in the grocery store and you’re likely to find emulsifiers: ingredients such as polysorbate 80, lecithin, carrageenan, polyglycerols, and xanthan and other “gums. On the label they are also listed as soy lecithin, mono-and-diglycerides, sorbitan monostearate and found in salad dressings, peanut butter, chocolate, margarine, frozen desserts. They are also used to improve the texture and shelf-life of many foods found in supermarkets, from ice cream and baked goods, and even veggie burgers, non-dairy milks, and hamburger patties.
Food additives are supposed to be thoroughly tested before they enter the food supply but recently the FDA has been letting down the regulations for some reason. A 2013 study found that almost 80 percent of the chemicals the agency allows in foods lack testing information. In the case of emulsifiers, the FDA should reconsider its testing for safety since it is now in so many different foods and many people may be consuming far more than original estimates. Originally emulsifiers were among the food additives placed on the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. These additives are not subject to FDA review unless there is some reason to do so. However, recent research suggests that there is reason to do so.
An earlier study from Georgia State University showed that emulsifiers changed the good bacteria in the guts of mice and may play a role in the development of colon cancer. In a follow-up study mice were fed two emulsifiers in their water and the results showed high levels of inflammation in the gut microbes that favored tumor growth.
Another study published in the journal Nature suggests that these ingredients may contribute to obesity, metabolic syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease possibly due to gut microbe activity. This study also fed mice emulsifiers in water in levels approved for use in food and/or levels that emulated the amount that would be consumed if a lot of processed foods are used. The emulsifiers tested were polysorbate 80 (common in ice cream) and carboxymethylcellulose. Many of these emulsifiers are used in gluten-free products and some reduced-fat dairy products. In this study, mice with normal immune systems developed mild intestinal symptoms, ate more and became obese, hyperglycemic and insulin resistant. Mice with abnormal immune systems developed chronic colitis.
These studies offer some doubt about the safety of some food additives exemplified by the ubiquitous use of artificial emulsifiers in processed foods. Maybe it is time the GRAS list is reviewed.