How do emulsifiers work?

The basic structure of an emulsifier includes a hydrophobic part , usually a long-chain fatty acid, and a hydrophilic part , which can be either charged or uncharged. The hydrophobic part of the emulsifier dissolves in the oil phase and the hydrophilic part dissolves in the water phase to form a dispersion of small oil droplets.

Emulsifiers thus form and stabilize oil-in-water emulsions (e.g. mayonnaise), evenly disperse oil-soluble aromatic compounds throughout the product, prevent the formation of large ice crystals in frozen products (e.g. ice cream) and improve the volume, uniformity and smoothness of baked products. Some emulsifiers also stabilize so that the emulsion does not separate over time. You’ll also see stabilizers added to some foods to help hold the emulsion.

Emulsifiers currently used in the food industry are either purified natural products (of plant or animal origin) or synthetic chemicals that have a very similar structure to natural products.

Natural emulsifiers

Many emulsifiers used today are of natural origin and are called hydrocolloids . Hydrocolloids act as thickeners and support the structure, texture, flavor and shelf life of various food products.

Hydrocolloids include emulsifiers from plants, animals and water sources .

Plant-based hydrocolloids include carob gum, carrageenan from red seaweed, pectins and starch, while animal-based emulsifiers include, for example, chitosan from crustacean shells.

Hydrocolloids, such as xanthan gum, can also come from microbial sources, and even the food products themselves —mustard, oil, salt, egg yolk, and vinegar—can serve as emulsifiers.

Why are emulsifiers used in the food industry?

  • They help stabilize the mixture.
  • They reduce the stickiness of some foods.
  • They ensure that packaged foods retain their consistency, texture and taste .
  • They help make foods creamy, thick or foamy .
  • They reduce crystallization .
  • They prevent the separation of water and oil.

Bread can be baked without the use of emulsifiers, but the result will often be dry, the bread will have a small volume and harden easily. 0.5% emulsifier added to the dough is enough to achieve a larger volume, a softer crumb structure and a longer shelf life. Two types of emulsifiers are used in bread: dough stiffeners (e.g. diacetyl tartaric acid esters (E472e) and sodium or calcium stearoyl-2-lactylate (E481, E482)) and dough softeners (e.g. mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471)) . Stiffeners strengthen the dough and the result is bread with a better structure and volume.

All chocolate products contain 0.5% lecithin (E322) or ammonium phosphatide (E442). These emulsifiers are added to ensure the right consistency of chocolate. As a result, the chocolate can be molded into chocolate bars, bars, etc. If the chocolate has been stored at too high temperatures, its surface may appear dull or white. Sorbitan tristearate (E492) helps prevent this.

Ice cream is one of the most complex foods we encounter. Emulsifiers are added during the freezing process to promote a smoother texture and increase the stability of the freeze/thaw process. We have the best homemade ice cream recipes for you to lick your lips!

Emulsifiers give margarine the desired stability, texture and flavor.

Sausages dominate the European meat industry . The main components of sausages are meat proteins, fat and water, which are bound together in a stable emulsion. Emulsifiers stabilize this emulsion and ensure a fine dispersion of the fat throughout the mass. In low-fat meat products, food additives are responsible for making them as good as their full-fat counterparts.

What are the other benefits of using emulsifiers?

Depending on the specific type, other potential benefits and uses may include:

  • Improving the volume of products.
  • Improving the taste and appearance of food (more uniform colors, etc.).
  • Extending the shelf life of various products by keeping them fresh longer.
  • Preventing food from softening .
  • They help the absorption of nutrients . For example, lecithin can help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K.
  • They help maintain healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels .
  • Some emulsifiers provide us with nutrients that heal the barrier of the gastrointestinal tract. For example, pectin, gums and starches can provide us with probiotics , which help feed healthy probiotic bacteria in the gut. Natural emulsifiers can also help us feel fuller because they can contain fiber.
  • In skin care products, emulsifiers act as emollients . This can help relieve irritated, dry skin.
  • It creates a gel consistency in products that are used on the hair or body.

In what foods are emulsifiers used?

  • margarine
  • mayonnaise
  • cream sauces
  • candies
  • packaged processed foods
  • sweets
  • bakery products
  • ice cream
  • salad dressings
  • chocolate
  • nut butters
  • processed meat

Are emulsifiers safe?

According to a 2021 study, food emulsifiers increase the risk of intestinal inflammation . The study found that two synthetic emulsifiers – carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate 80 – drastically affect the gut microbiome and increase the risk of inflammation.

Another 2017 study identified that emulsifiers increase the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which can lead to severe symptoms. The study also found that emulsifiers aid in the development of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular and liver disease.

However, more research is needed to understand the health effects of food emulsifiers.

The good news is that emulsifiers are often only used in small amounts in foods. However, if you experience any side effects when consuming processed foods that contain emulsifiers, consider reducing your dose or consult your doctor.


Probably the best choice in terms of emulsifiers is sunflower lecithin , which is generally safe and can be consumed with minimal risk of side effects.

This type of emulsifier is very unlikely to be genetically modified (especially if it’s organic) and doesn’t go through as intensive an extraction process compared to other food ingredients, including lecithin made from soy or egg yolks.

Guar gum, pectin and starches are also good emulsifiers as they are more naturally derived and even have some health benefits such as helping with blood sugar and cholesterol regulation, digestion and satiety.