Do You Want Some Soap with that Latté?

Chances are, you're digesting this agent detergent-like properties. So much for healthy food.

November 15, 2016
almond latte

There's a good chance that along with your almond milk latté, energy bar, and even your slice of gluten-free bread today, you have unknowingly ingested an emulsifying agent, many of which have detergent-like properties, far from fortifying and potentially health reducing.

To serve an insatiable commercial demand for convenience and specialty foods that stay fresher longer, scientists have created a plethora of novel food products relying on a group of compounds called emulsifiers to blend ingredients that don't traditionally want to stick together. They are crucial if you're in the business of making products gluten-free, dairy-free, or low fat, as emulsifiers help "glue" and combine ingredients. Even that yogurt you snacked on this morning likely has at least one emulsifier in it; same goes for that warm loaf of freshly baked supermarket bread you plan to pick up. And yes, summer favorites like ice cream and hot dogs contain emulsifiers.


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So, what's the big deal with eating foods containing some emulsifiers?

A colleague of mine from medical school, who suffers from a sensitivity to gluten, discovered the powerful effects of emulsifiers while on a trip to Paris, where she committed what was for her the ultimate dietary transgression. She was expecting the worst type of digestive payback from a guilty pleasure—a hot, freshly baked baguette—but to her surprise, absolutely nothing happened. When she replicated her gluten-binge back home, her digestion pushed back hard.

Eventually she realized that there were emulsifiers in commercially produced U.S. breads that were not listed in the ingredients. The baguettes she enjoyed in France, which consisted only of flour, water, yeast and salt, went down with no digestive disturbance.

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The sea change of what we consume daily has been accompanied by a parallel wave of epic dietary issues. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn's disease, as well as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and non-celiac gluten sensitivity or NCGS has risen. Currently, one in five, or more than 60 million Americans report having symptoms consistent with IBS. 

Science has seen a relationship between added dietary emulsifiers and gut issues.

In a watershed study published last year in the journal Nature, scientists at Georgia State University tested the physiological consequences of ingesting two common emulsifiers, carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) and polysorbate 80 (P80), found in many commercially produced foods. The consumed emulsifiers seemed to thin the mucous barrier of the gut and trigger an inflammatory reaction in mice. Many emulsifiers have soap-like properties so it's not surprising that the mucous barrier of the mice was stripped.  


Disturbingly, the mice became ill from very low concentrations of dietary emulsifiers; 20 times less than some people are unwittingly exposed to every day. The mice in the Georgia State study also got fat.

The emulsifiers seemed to throw the mice's glucose control out the window. With consistent emulsifier consumption, the mice also frantically overate, resulting in disproportionate weight gain. The only mice that didn't gain weight were the ones who got full-blown colitis that's similar to inflammatory bowel disease in humans. 

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We cannot definitively say emulsifiers are the cause of the dietary grief that currently afflicts millions of Americans. But should we be ingesting ingredients that the latest scientific research suggests have the potential to make us sick and fat?

Millions of years of human evolution did not endow us with the genetics to deal with emulsifier-laden processed foods. As my grandmother wisely said, "If you don't like it, don't eat it." To find out whether emulsifiers agree with you, opt out of eating them. Scrutinize ingredient lists on foods in your shopping cart and remove those which include emulsifiers. 

Be warned: food manufacturers are not legally required to list all emulsifying agents used as ingredients, under the assumption that additives in minute amounts will only confuse the consumer. This labelling exemption from the early 1970s deserves to be revisited. Science now suggests that even trace amounts of emulsifiers may be causing real health concerns. We already know definitively that our excessive consumption of processed foods is harming our health in myriad ways, and we are now beginning to understand that food additives like emulsifiers may carry their own unique risks when it comes to interfering with our digestions' natural processes. 


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The only real solution is to have both the FDA and USDA require food producers to list all emulsifiers in their ingredient list. Without that, it's impossible to properly alert consumers, and to weed out potentially harmful products.

In the meantime, if you find yourself feeling unwell after eating, consider cutting down on your consumption of all processed foods, many of which carry emulsifiers—from snacks like commercially packaged cookies and chips to the "healthy" offerings like coconut water and smoothies, from chicken fingers and fish sticks to frozen meals, your favorite rotisserie chicken, and even salad dressing. Try non-processed foods like fresh vegetables, home-prepared meats and fish, and dress your salads with lemon juice or oil and vinegar. Your digestive health and waistline may thank you.