11 February 2019

Research Update: Dietary Emulsifiers

Research Update: Dietary Emulsifiers

By Dr. Jane Varney and Dr. Emma Halmos - Research Dietitians

Dietary emulsifiers are the latest food additives to be implicated in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), namely Crohn’s disease (C.D) - but what are they? 

  • Emulsifiers stabilise a product so that 2 or more liquids, such as oil and water, will stay together and not separate. eg. a salad dressing that does not need to be shaken up.
  • A product may also remain stable with use of a thickener
  • Emulsifiers and thickeners play important roles in improving the look and feel of foods.
  • For example, in fat based spreads (e.g. margarine) they may improving spread ability – esp in low‐fat varieties
  • A very large number of substances are classified as ‘emulsifiers’
  • A few examples include lecithin (found in egg yolk), xanthan gum, carrageenan, carboxymethylcellulose and agar, they can also be naturally occurring in foods (such as milk and egg).

What do we know about emulsifiers and thickeners?

  • In Aus and N.Z, all additive emulsifiers and thickeners must undergo assessment for safety before they are allowed to be used. However, their impact in certain populations, such as people with C.D is unknown. Furthermore, there may be differences in emulsifier types and quantities consumed, which we know very little about.

Should you be worried about emulsifiers and thickeners?

  • At this stage, no. We need to find out more about dietary emulsifiers and thickeners before determining whether they have any impact on the gut & general health
  • There are a few theories about how these agents may affect human health, there are no human studies yet.

Take home messages

  • Common sense messages about healthy eating remain, including limiting intake of manufactured foods and trying to eat mostly fresh, unprocessed foods as these are generally better for overall health and less likely to contain food additives.


Researchers (including those in our team) are trying to understand more about dietary intake of emulsifiers, and about the roles they have in human health & disease.

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