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Emulsifiers help with healthier treats

All things in moderation

A healthy, balanced diet, at least as we understand it today, means eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain cereals and breads, low-fat dairy products, as well as good fats such as those found in avocados and fish. Yet there is no denying that the odd ice cream, piece of cake or chocolate treat, for example, has a place in our lives, too.

Today’s most advanced emulsifiers can help to make those indulgent moments healthier than before by addressing fat concerns in food without affecting the taste and mouth-feel consumers have come to expect. These special ingredients are deemed safe by the food safety authorities and are commonly used in food manufacturing to achieve desired textures and stability.


Focus on fat

For the past thirty or more years, regulatory authorities and the consumers they seek to protect have been waging war on fat content and types in our foods. The first edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published in 1980 and subsequently updated every five years, advised people to steer clear of "too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol," linking fat intake and heart disease.

While the topic isn’t without scientific controversy, reducing fat content in a variety of foods and eliminating less healthy forms of fat is a key driver in the development of new food products and the reformulation of new ones. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the task is an easy one.

Take margarine, for example. Even a low-fat or light margarine spread typically has a fat content of around 40 percent. That’s low compared with a full-fat product, which approaches 100 percent, but it’s still high in comparison to other food types. But for margarine manufacturers, squeezing more fat out of their products is a tough job. And that’s where emulsifiers can perform their magic, combining smart ingredient choices and the right processing parameters to achieve a fat content as low as 10% without significantly affecting the margarine’s properties.


Trans fat troubles

As mentioned, reducing overall fat content is just one side of the story. In 2015, for example, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that artificial trans fats are not generally recognised as safe, and set a three-year time limit for their removal from all processed foods.

Trans fats occur naturally in the guts of some animals but can also be created artificially through hydrogenation. This process involves converting a liquid, vegetable fat into something with a more stable and solid consistency. By adding hydrogen, the degree of unsaturation of its component fatty acids is reduced, resulting in Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHOs). These were popular to use as they are cheap to produce, easy to use and stable, but all of this comes at a price.

There is strong evidence to suggest that trans fats contribute to a higher risk of Cardiovascular Disease by increasing your blood’s LDL cholesterol level and decreasing HDL cholesterol. A high LDL level in the blood appears to contribute to atherosclerosis - plaque build-up in the arteries - leading to high blood pressure and increasing risk of stroke or heart attack.

Food manufacturers around the world are able to use emulsifiers to reduce and replace trans fats in their products. In many cases these highly functional additives are the only way to do so without compromising product quality.


Sweet summer treat

Here’s another example: ice cream, a much loved product all around the world, also benefits greatly from new emulsifier types. Traditionally, that tasty eating experience has been largely due to the use of coconut and palm kernel oils with a high content of saturated fat (coconut contains 92% and palm kernel more than 80% saturated fats).

Remove or replace these oils and the overall fat component of the ice cream becomes softer, affecting the product’s structure and dramatically changing the eating experience. The right emulsifiers and stabilizers, however, help food manufacturers reduce saturated fats in their products while keeping the recipe as close as possible to the original to maintain desirable flavour and pricing.


Playing their part

Whether you agree with the focus on dietary fats or not, there’s no denying that, despite being just a tiny part of any food recipe, emulsifiers are contributing to the effort in no small way. So, the next time you feel like indulging yourself with a delicious something, go right ahead – perhaps that pleasurable moment is much more healthy thanks to the power of emulsifiers!

About the author

Pharoeuth Khem

Pharoeuth is a qualified dietitian and nutritionist, completing her studies at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia in 2008. With a particular interest in preventative health, she writes about biology, biochemistry and dietetics – the study of the link between diet and disease and its application in human nutrition, and believes in supporting the community with practical dietary advice that is not only evidence-based but common sense, too.