From making it look better, to tweaking the texture, to enhancing the shelf life, the use of both natural and man-made emulsifiers has become commonplace in many processed foods.
And because these food additive molecules are so ubiquitous in our food, nutritional researchers are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of consuming large amounts of emulsifiers on our health.
In a new study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) this week, French scientists at the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team (EREN) in Bobigny have associated high consumption of a whole range of common emulsifiers with an increased risk of coronary heart disease and even all forms of cardiovascular disease. The team identified these associations through following more than 95,000 adults over a number of years and examining their dietary records.
According to Mathilde Touvier and Bernard Srour, two of the scientists who led the study, links were found between common emulsifiers such as carboxymethylcellulose (E466) and mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471) and increased cardiovascular risk. Touvier and Srour said that further research now needs to be done to see whether this same trend can be identified in wider populations and why exactly these emulsifiers might be contributing to heart disease.
“It already seems important to follow the official recommendations issued in several countries, such as France, Brazil, Mexico and Israel, to limit as far as possible the consumption of ultra-processed foods containing additives that are not essential to human health,” says Touvier.
Previous research has found that food containing emulsifiers can also impact our ability to naturally regulate our hunger. In a study published by the journal Cell Metabolism, participants given emulsifier-laden food consumed 500 more calories per day in just two weeks and gained an average of 2.2lb, compared with those who ate whole foods.
For many nutritionists, this illustrates the importance of carefully reading the ingredient lists on many products. “A lot of companies try to divert attention elsewhere,” says Eva Humphries, a Nottingham-based qualified nutritionist. “Brands will add statements like ‘no artificial colours’, which makes you think that it’s healthy, but when you look at the ingredients, there are preservatives, emulsifiers and all these different chemicals.”
While some emulsifiers are indicated by E numbers, this is not always the case. Humphries says that modified starch is one particular hidden emulsifier, while Harley Street registered nutritionist Clarissa Lenherr describes barley malt as another.
“You assume barley is a wheat or grain which is natural and therefore safe,” she says. “But actually, it is an emulsifier that people often don’t recognise.”
However, it should be noted that merely eating a slice of bread will not give you heart disease, nor will a scoop or two of emulsifier-laden ice cream. The BMJ study suggested that high consumption of these emulsifiers in the diet, through a whole range of processed foods, over a long period of time, can increase your risk.
Here are seven foods that contain emulsifiers and the healthier swaps to make.
1. Supermarket bread
Even relatively innocuous-sounding products such as sliced wholemeal bread from brands such as Hovis, Warburtons, Allinson’s and Sainsbury’s contain emulsifiers.
These packaged breads contain the emulsifiers E471 and E472e, both of which were linked to heightened cardiovascular risk by the BMJ study.
So why are emulsifiers in our bread? “It’s all to do with improving texture and lengthening the shelf life,” says registered nutritional therapist Katherine Paton.
As a result, many pre-packaged sandwiches, such as Tesco ham and cheese, also contain emulsifiers through the bread that they use.
Replace with: “For packaged bread, there are brands like Jason’s,” says Paton. “And obviously things like sourdough as well.”
2. Tubs of Pringles
Many flavours of Pringles contain the emulsifier E471. “Pringles are like a potato starch; [they aren’t] actually made from a slice of potato,” says Paton. “My guess is that they use this emulsifier to try to improve the texture of the product.”
Replace with: Nutritionists never recommend any form of crisps as a healthy option, but brands such as Pipers, which are made directly from potatoes, are likely to be a better choice. “Crisps are not a health food, so consume in moderation, but crisps made from a more direct potato source are a better alternative,” says Paton.
3. Breakfast cereals and cereal bars
Some common brands of breakfast cereal, as well as cereal bars, contain emulsifiers such as trisodium phosphate (E339) or E472b. In the BMJ paper, high intake of trisodium phosphate was associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, while E472 was linked to all outcomes of cardiovascular disease.
Examples of foods containing these emulsifiers are Cheerios Oat Crisp which uses E339 and the Soft Bake Chocolate Chip line of Belvita Breakfast Biscuits, which uses E472b.
“The main reason why a lot of breakfast cereals use emulsifiers is to help with the prevention of the cereal getting soggy and to retain shape,” says Lenherr.
“Emulsifiers can help create a bit of a barrier so they can stay quite crunchy. They also help with shelf life, and as we know, cereals can last quite a long time in your cupboard, while something that just had wheat in would go off a little bit quicker.”
Replace with: As a general rule, Lenherr recommends that the simpler the cereal, the less likely it is to contain an emulsifier.
“Rather than looking for a frosted flaked, crunchy combination, simple things with one or two ingredients are not going to have the emulsifiers,” she says.
She recommends brands such as Kallo Organic Wholegrain Rice Puffs or Rude Health Spelt Flakes, which tend to contain these simpler ingredients.
Emulsifiers are found in many common brands of sauces, with Humphries giving the example of Nando’s sauces, which tend to contain E477 and modified starches. This tends to be done for two reasons – cost saving and reducing cooking time.
“Adding emulsifiers means that things thicken up quicker,” she says. “And it allows the company to have a higher proportion of water in the product, which costs nothing. It allows them to bulk out the product more with this zero-cost ingredient and mix in more expensive ingredients like vegetable oils.”
Replace with: Humphries says that Stokes Sauces is one brand that tends to be better at not adding emulsifiers into its products. But the best alternative is simply to make your own.
“If you ask me how I would personally add flavour to chicken, I use a spice blend mixed with tomato paste or chopped tomatoes. If you look at the core of a lot of these sauces, it’s things like tomato, onion puree, garlic puree – those things are really easy to mix at home.”
5. Low-fat dairy
Through her own research, Humphries says she’s finding that emulsifiers tend to be particularly prevalent in low-fat dairy products.
“They’re having to give you the same mouthfeel as fat content would do, but without it,” she says. “And emulsifiers trick the brain into it. But unfortunately they increase food cravings as well.”
Examples of low-fat dairy products containing emulsifiers are Philadelphia Light, which contains carrageenan (E407) and Laughing Cow Light Triangles, which contain emulsifying salts (E452).
Replace with: Normal full-fat dairy products, which are less likely to be high in emulsifiers.
6. Ice cream and chocolate
The majority of ice cream brands and chocolate bars will contain some form of emulsifier. Paton gives the example of Wall’s Soft Scoop Vanilla Ice Cream as a product that contains at least one of the emulsifiers listed in the BMJ paper.
According to Richard Hoffman, a nutrition expert at the University of Hertfordshire, the “melt in the mouth” that we associate with chocolate is a result of chemicals that are essentially emulsifiers. “Chocolate contains high levels of fat, which needs to be stabilised to create a nice texture and mouthfeel,” he says. “These emulsifiers have a dual role of combining oil and water components and stabilising them as well.”
Replace with: Paton says it is much better to go for artisan chocolate brands. “Emulsifiers are not necessary for chocolate; it is only mass production products that use them,” she explains. “Artisan products are not ultra-processed. They are more expensive, but you can find them in specialty chocolate stores such as my favourite, Cocoa Runners. A widely available ice cream without emulsifiers is Yeo valley vanilla ice cream. Although ice cream is still high in sugar so definitely still one to eat occasionally rather than often.”
7. Plant-based meat and vegan cheese
Hoffman has been a major critic of the sheer amount of emulsifiers found within many plant-based meat or cheese alternatives, and has just published a new article in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition criticising the use of the term “plant-based meat”. Instead, he describes them as major examples of ultra-processed foods.
For example, both the Beyond Burger and Beyond Mince, which can be found in many UK supermarkets contain the stabiliser methylcellulose, otherwise known as E461, which was listed in the BMJ paper as a warning ingredient, as well as at least three other emulsifiers.
“They contain emulsifiers because of the need to stabilise ingredients and combine them in a texture that is acceptable for the consumer,” says Hoffman. “Transforming these raw ingredients into something that has the texture of a burger requires a lot of industrial magic.”
The same is the case with many brands of vegan cheese. Humphries suggests watching out for terms such as “modified starch”. She says: “They’ll put this and add a little asterisk next to it, which says ‘not from GM sources’, to try to make it sound really healthy, but actually, modified starch is still a chemical-based emulsifier.”
Replace with: Hoffman recommends going for pure plant-based sources of protein such as lentil burgers instead of products like Beyond or Impossible, which attempt to replicate a real hamburger. “Vegans have been eating lentil burgers and so on for decades,” he says. “But the consumer has to accept that it won’t taste exactly like a real meat burger.”