Emulsifiers are fillers used in the food industry to improve the texture and stability of processed foods including many non-dairy cheeses, milks and yogurt. Many supplements also contain these fillers to help keep the contents of the capsule dry and prevent the outside of the capsule from breaking down during storage. Some of the most common emulsifiers are gellan gum, carrageenan, guar gum, agar, locust bean gum, polysorbate 80, soy lecithin and maltodextrin, but there are dozens more. Research regarding the impact of these emulsifiers on the human gut are ongoing and somewhat conflicting. So, let’s take a look at some of the research.
The Good, The Bad and the Not So Sure
In a study presented in the Journal of Food Chemistry, gellan gum was shown to have a positive effect on not only gut bacteria but it also improved gut barrier function and lowered risk of fatty liver disease in mice fed a very high fat diet. In another small study on ten healthy human volunteers, partially hydrolyzed guar gum (PHGG) had positive effect on gut health by increasing short chain fatty acids in the large intestine which feeds beneficial butyrate-producing bacteria. Both studies state the suspected mechanism of action is that these emulsifiers act like prebiotics similar to FOS (fructooligosaccharides) and inulin.
An ex vivo study (essentially on cells in a petri dish) at the Center for Microbial Ecology in Belgium research has shown that these additives can have negative effects by decreasing the diversity and stability of the gut microbiome. A fairly comprehensive study, it tested several types of emulsifiers. Polysorbate 80, in particular, was shown to decrease the motility of the gut bacteria and decrease thickness of the mucus of the gut lining increasing susceptibility to inflammation and metabolic syndrome. Several other emulsifiers tested were found to increase non-beneficial bacteria like E.coli, reduce beneficial bacteria like Akkermansia and reduce short chain fatty acid production.
Gellan gum, a microbial polysaccharide, is often used as a thickener and stabilizer in dairy products, beverages, and baked goods. Studies have shown that gellan gum can lead to changes in the gut microbiome by altering the balance of bacterial species. In a study conducted on mice, it was found that gellan gum increased the levels of harmful bacteria such as Clostridium and decreased beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium.
Locust bean gum, a natural gum extracted from the seeds of the carob tree, is also commonly used as a thickener and stabilizer in processed foods. Concerns are that locust bean gum can increase gut permeability allowing harmful substances to pass into the bloodstream, leading to systemic inflammation and potential long-term health consequences.
So, what’s the bottom line?
The gut microbiome is a complex ecosystem of microorganisms that plays a critical role in maintaining overall health. Disruptions to this delicate balance can have a significant impact on immune function, digestion, and metabolism. How each of these emulsifiers are affecting human health is not clearly known. One thing we do know for sure is that the more processed foods we eat, the higher the risk of disease and cancer. It is safe to assume that consuming these gums in excess can have a cumulative effect that is detrimental to overall health.
As a consumer you should be aware of the potential risks associated with consuming processed foods containing these emulsifiers. Until we know for sure what is safe, choosing whole, unprocessed foods and reading food labels carefully can help minimize exposure to these additives. Additionally, incorporating probiotics, prebiotics, and fermented foods into the diet can help support a healthy gut microbiome.