By Carmen Heintzelman
Have you ever read the back of a food package and wondered what some of those ingredients listed are and why they’re in your food? Well, it turns out that many seemingly inconsequential ingredients actually play key roles in getting food products to be just the way you like them. One key workhorse for food manufacturers is emulsifiers. But before talking about the ingredients themselves, let’s establish what an emulsifier is.
At its most basic, an emulsifier is an ingredient added to food that allows oil and water to mix and stay combined rather than separate. This oil and water mixture is called an emulsion and it appears in the context of many different food products.
Here are a few key emulsifiers that are commonly found on food ingredient labels:
- Lecithin (soy, sunflower, or other)
Lecithin is an emulsifier that is widely used in processed food products. It is a phospholipid which allows it to act as a very thin barrier between the oil and water droplets, allowing them to mix well and not separate. As the names suggest, soy lecithin is extracted from soybeans, sunflower lecithin is extracted from sunflowers, and sometimes labels will only say “lecithin” and not specify the source. Lecithin is also found in egg yolks, which is sometimes why eggs are included in a food product or recipe. Regardless of the source, lecithin is a very effective emulsifier which is why it is used so widely in food products. Some food products it is commonly used in include baked goods, cake mixes, nut spreads, salad dressings, soup bases, crackers, chocolate bars, and many others.
- DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides)
DATEM is an emulsifier that has a more specific job than lecithin. It is typically used in bread-type products because it is able to interact with the gluten in doughs and strengthen the resulting bread products. Some food products it is commonly used in include bread, biscuits, and others.
- Mono- and diglycerides
Monoglycerides and diglycerides are also emulsifiers that can affect and improve foods. They can help soften bread, among other things. It is commonly found in bread products, cake mixes, margarines, and others.