A Series on Food Additives - Emulsifiers

A Series on Food Additives - Emulsifiers

Published on Tuesday, July 04, 2023 by Emily Hamm

Do you wonder what gives your food that perfect texture and consistency? Emulsifiers do!

As I’ve mentioned in my introduction article to food additives, I am going to dive into various additives and explain their impact on human health. Research suggests that some additives can modify gut bacteria leading to dysbiosis (imbalance in healthy gut bacteria) and leaky gut (gut permeability- weakening in the gut barrier leading to inflammation).

A large number of processed foods contain emulsifiers or thickeners to make foods more palatable and enhance shelf-life. Emulsifiers are also needed to mix two immiscible ingredients (ex., oil and water) and maintain it as a homogenous mixture. A great example is mayonnaise or salad dressing; emulsifiers keep the oil from separating in the mixture.

There are both synthetic and natural emulsifiers, thickeners, and stabilizers that are added to foods. Here is a list of both natural and synthetic emulsifiers you may commonly see in products you buy:


Emulsifiers are interesting because they are not generally absorbed in our intestines; therefore, they have a unique ability to interact with the gut microbiota. If you have IBS and follow a Low FODMAP diet, you may notice that some are off-limits due to their high FODMAP properties. Common foods that contain emulsifiers include plant-based milk alternatives, ice cream, processed dairy products, baking goods (icing, cake mix, muffin mix), peanut butter (non-stir kind), mayonnaise, margarine, salad dressings, and creamy sauces.

Most research on emulsifiers and stabilizers has been in animal and cell models, showing the adverse effects these additives can have on our gut microbiota, especially synthetic emulsifiers. Most studies show gut microbiota disruption and low-grade inflammation formation, which can lead to systemic diseases like metabolic disease and even inflammatory bowel diseases.

-P80 and CMC have been linked to:

o   Intestinal inflammation

o   Bacterial overgrowth- harmful bacteria / Altered microbiota composition

o   Obesity impaired glycemic tolerance

o   Liver dysfunction

o   Increased risk/severity of colitis

o   Metabolic syndrome secondary to increased systemic low-grade inflammation

o   Decrease in short-chain fatty acid production

-Carrageenans and gums have been linked to:

o   Altered microbiota density, composition

o   Expression of pro-inflammatory molecules

-Maltodextrin has been linked to

o   Altered gut mucus barrier; permeability

o   Intestinal inflammation

There are several clinical trials- one that has been completed and pending publication and one that is in progress, evaluating the effects of natural emulsifiers like alginic acid or soy lecithin. It will be interesting to see the results of these studies and how they impact gut health. Given the preliminary animal and cell research, I am uncomfortable recommending consuming CMC, P80, carrageenan, gums, and maltodextrin—especially for people with GI-related disease/illness. I will keep you all updated on the research developments in this area.

In the meantime, to reduce the ingestion of the emulsifiers specifically mentioned above, you can do the following:

  • Read ingredients and become familiar with what is in the products you buy. Compare ingredients in various products and pick ones that have fewer ingredients. This is the most important thing you can do!
    • Simple Truth, Whole Foods 365, and Primal Kitchen are examples of brands that I recommend as less processed- meaning they do not contain as many food additives (and they are typically easier to find in stores or online).
  • Get creative! Make new foods from scratch at home. There are tons of easy recipes out there to make! Try this salad dressing.
  • Choose more fresh produce and less processed foods at the grocery store. 
  • Shop local- try your farmer’s markets where more fresh ingredients are used.

Remember that some emulsifiers may not be as harmful as others as they are natural derivatives. As mentioned, a lot of research is coming out looking at food additives. If you find that you have some intestinal upset, talk with a registered dietitian to help you identify food triggers, including the possibility of food additives. 


  1. Chassaing, B., Compher, C., Bonhomme, B., Liu, Q. H., Tian, Y., Walters, W., Nessel, L., Delaroque, C., Hao, F., Gershuni, V. M., Chau, L., Ni, J., Bewtra, M., Albenberg, L., Bretin, A., McKeever, L., Ley, R. E., Patterson, A. D., Wu, G. D., . . . Lewis, J. D. (2021). Randomized Controlled-Feeding Study of Dietary Emulsifier Carboxymethylcellulose Reveals Detrimental Impacts on the Gut Microbiota and Metabolome. Gastroenterology, 162(3), 743–756. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2021.11.006
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  3. Gerasimidis, K., Bryden, K., Chen, X., Papachristou, E., Verney, A., Roig, M., Hansen, R. A., Nichols, B., Papadopoulou, R., & Parrett, A. (2020). The impact of food additives, artificial sweeteners and domestic hygiene products on the human gut microbiome and its fibre fermentation capacity. European Journal of Nutrition, 59(7), 3213–3230. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-019-02161-8
  4. Naimi, S., Viennois, E., Gewirtz, A. T., & Chassaing, B. (2021). Direct impact of commonly used dietary emulsifiers on human gut microbiota. Microbiome, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40168-020-00996-6
  5. Partridge, D., Lloyd, K. A., Rhodes, J. M., Walker, A. W., Johnstone, A. M., & Campbell, B. J. (2019). Food additives: Assessing the impact of exposure to permitted emulsifiers on bowel and metabolic health – introducing the FADiets study. Nutrition Bulletin, 44(4), 329–349. https://doi.org/10.1111/nbu.12408 
  6. CTG Labs - NCBI. (n.d.). https://beta.clinicaltrials.gov/study/NCT03842514?id=NCT03842514&rank=1 
  7. CTG Labs - NCBI. (n.d.-a). https://beta.clinicaltrials.gov/study/NCT05743374?cond=gut+health&intr=polysorbate+80&rank=1
  8. Deliciously Organic. (2021, January 13). The unprocessed kitchen: Step 5 - salad dressing. Deliciously Organic. https://deliciouslyorganic.net/the-unprocessed-kitchen-salad-dressing/  

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