A Closer Look at Gums and Other Ingredients Known as Emulsifiers

In our quest for information about natural foods as a way of sustaining a healthy lifestyle, we often see in the list of ingredients, additives identified as emulsifiers. Do we really know what role emulsifiers play and whether all emulsifiers are safe?

Emulsifiers and What Makes Them Important as a Food Preparation Ingredient?

You may read labels that include carrageenan, guar gum, locust bean gum, xanthan gum or soy lecithin, and wondered about its importance as an additive. Food gums, also known as emulsifiers, if added to a mixture of two or more liquid substances, will modify the texture of the mixture.

Emulsifiers are common to processed foods, to which texture-modification includes gelling-up the mixture if the resulting liquid has thin consistency; or to improve the moisture level of a dough. Emulsifying ingredients stabilize and prevent dryness or brittleness. Adding a certain type of food gum can prevent the ingredients of gluten-free baked treats or soft tortillas from separating and becoming brittle.

Best and Safest Types of Emulsifiers

The best types of food gums are those that come from organic sources and made of complex carbohydrates usually found in vegetables, whole grains, beans and peas. Complex carbohydrates are generally important to health giving foods, because they provide fiber, energy, vitamins and minerals to the body.

Soy lecithin, albeit not classified as a complex carbohydrate, is a common type of emulsifier. The emulsifying lecithin substance can be extracted from soybeans, egg yolks or sunflower seeds. Since eggs come from animals, egg-based lecithin should not appear as ingredients of foods processed for a vegan lifestyle.

The more likely types of emulsifiers used as stabilizing ingredients are guar gum and locust bean gum because they are derived from plants. Guar comes from cluster beans, while locust beans are produced by the carob tree. Some also use carrageenan gum, which are complex carbohydrates produced by seaweeds. Xanthan gum on the other hand, is produced by a particular type of bacteria in connection with sugar fermentation.

Are Man-Made or Synthetic Emulsifiers Safe?

Cellulose gums are emulsifiers produced at industrial labs using synthetic compounds. They came about in order to meet the demand of the food industry for emulsifiers.

That being the case, questions have been raised about the potential risks posed by cellulose gum and its characteristics as an artificial type of emulsifier. Although generally regarded as safe, food scientists have yet to determine its potential risks because initial findings show that the human body cannot absorb or digest cellulose gums.