Emulsifiers and Gut Function

By: Judy Davie - The Food Coach

While most of us are trained to avoid, colours, artificial flavouring and preservatives in packaged food, emulsifiers appear to have fallen under the radar. Research however suggests that food manufacturers may have to make more space on the front of their packaging to add the words "No emulsifiers" if they want consumers to buy their products. It appears that emulsifiers may contribute to inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's, ulcerative colitis and metabolic syndrome.

Emulsifiers hold oily and watery substances together. A natural example we are familiar with is mayonnaise where egg yolk is used as an emulsifier to hold oil and vinegar together. In food processing, emulsifiers are used to hold ingredients together, improve texture and extend shelf life, but once again science proves that appearance and cost savings are placing our health in jeopardy.

The research led by Georgia State University Institute discovered that emulsifiers, considered to be innocuous additives, can alter gut microbiota composition and lead to intestinal inflammation and the development of inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, afflicts millions of people and is often severe and debilitating. Metabolic syndrome is a group of very common obesity-related disorders that can lead to type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular and/or liver diseases.

Studies found emulsifiers fed to mice caused changes to the composition of their gut microbiota making it more pro-inflammatory. The altered microbiota had enhanced capacity to digest and infiltrate the dense mucus layer that lines the intestine, which is normally, largely devoid of bacteria. The changes in bacteria triggered chronic colitis in mice genetically prone to this disorder, due to abnormal immune systems. In mice with normal immune systems, emulsifiers induced low-grade or mild intestinal inflammation and metabolic syndrome, characterized by increased levels of food consumption, obesity, hyperglycemia and insulin resistance.
Source: Science News Feb 2015

You'll notice that the research was conducted in 2015 so it's not new but it triggered my attention because of lecithin. Lecithin is an essential fat found in the cells of the body and soy lecithin is a commonly used emulsifier in food processing.

Maybe you're wondering what the problem is if don't eat packaged food, but it's this.

Some people think lecithin is a health food and it's used in the manufacturing of medicines to treat conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer's, gallbladder, liver disease, certain types of depression, high cholesterol, anxiety, and eczema. Quite recently I was at a well-known health retreat where lecithin is served alongside chia seeds as a topping for yoghurt and fruit.

I mostly want to bring your attention to this: lecithin is a common ingredient used to bind raw cakes together. You know these cakes - the ones everyone thinks are great for you - if not necessary slimming!

I've been writing about healthy food for so many years it's a miracle there's anything left to write about, but there's always some piece of science out there to help dispute a growing food trend. What's important is to find out about it before that trend really catches on!

To conclude the messages are these:

  • Packaged food is best avoided
  • Lecithin is not a healthy ingredient
  • If some delicious gooey all natural raw cake looks too good to be true, it probably is.


    Jun 8 2016 9:46AM
    Thanks for this article Judy. I agree with your thoughts and research on lecithin.
    For numerous reasons I have settled on a vegan diet, so I do make the odd raw (nut-based) vegan 'cheesecake' as a treat, but have actually never come across one that calls for lecithin.
    The only recipes I commonly see calling for lecithin are vegan butters ... which I've found to be unnecessarily complicated and strange tasting, when I can just pop some olive oil or coconut oil (or a blend of the two, with a pinch of salt) in the fridge so it hardens up to be used as a spread.
    So, it may not be all bad for those who want to indulge in the odd piece of raw cake ... but of course, always ask to see the ingredients first ... or better still, make it yourself. :-)
    Comment by: Jenny
    Nov 26 2018 9:44PM
    Hi Judy, I'm currently researching the effect of dietary emulsifiers on the gut microbiota, so I came across your article. While you are definetly right that highly processed food is better to avoid, you make some big (wrong) statements about lecithin. The studies you're referring to were on the synthetical emulsifiers CMC and P80, that indeed have shown a lot of negative gut health effects. Lecithin however, is a natural EM that has shown a lot of possitive health effects (lower LDL cholesterol, better for immune system,...) in past research. It does come as an emulsifying component in less healthy food (chocolate, cakes,...) but the lecithin itself hasn't exactly proven to be harmful. This year I'm doing 3 SHIME-runs (it's a complete simulation of the gastro intestal tract) where I look at the impact of a synthetic EM (P80), a natural EM (lecithin) and a biotechnological one (Rhamnolipids). If you're interested, I'll keep you posted on the results! :) If you can recommend me some other interesting studies that I can add to my literature study, I'll be happy to hear from you.
    Comment by: Maksine
    Nov 28 2018 10:04AM
    Thanks Maksine
    I would very much like to hear about your latest research. By all means keep me posted and in the meantime I will revisit this information on lecithin.
    Comment by: Judy
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