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Emulsifiers battle food waste woes

As the global population increases, reducing food waste makes its way to the top of the sustainability agenda. How can emulsifiers help food manufacturers fight food waste?

Food waste has quickly become a global problem. And, with the world population projected to increase to 9.1 billion by 2050, experts are predicting that access to food would need to substantially increase to meet this growth. Feeding the world puts a strain on the Earth’s natural resources, making it more important than ever to reduce the amount of food waste across the food supply chain.

According to a 2011 report from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), around one third of food (equivalent to about 1.3 billion tonnes yearly) is lost or wasted throughout the supply chain and in the hands of consumers. Food loss and waste* can occur at many points in the food chain, from the early stage of agriculture and animal production to final processing, distribution and consumption. In developed countries, consumers are one of the larger contributors to food waste, often forgetting (or unable) to place perishable items in the refrigerator, or due to misunderstandings around use-by and best-before dates on labels.

Joining the battle

Emulsifiers certainly have a role to play in helping to reduce food waste. Not only do they assist in maintaining desirable texture and mouthfeel properties, but adding emulsifiers can extend the shelf life of products, reduce the ‘heat shock’ phenomenon in ice cream and even reduce the number of water droplets in packaged foods such as pre-washed salad leaves and meat products. 

Saving ice cream

Heat shock is often known as freezer burn and refers to the undesirable expansion of ice crystals. This phenomenon can occur in ice cream as it makes its journey from the manufacturer, into the supermarket freezer and finally, into consumers’ homes. The fluctuations in temperature cause the ice cream’s composition to change, forming even larger ice crystals. What is meant to be a deliciously smooth and creamy treat, now has a ‘crunchy’ texture.

The right emulsifiers can, therefore, help reduce the formation of large ice crystals in ice cream. By reducing heat shock, they can decrease food waste in the consumer home as it is less likely to be thrown away.


Better control

But it’s not all about consumers. Emulsifiers can help food manufacturers to maximise output of their raw materials, use less energy in production and achieve better control of raw material shortages in the supply chain. And for the world’s growing network of supermarkets, increased shelf life can result in less wastage of food stock that has to be thrown out for food safety and quality reasons. Using thick cream that has undergone Ultra Heat Treatment (UHT) for example, emulsifiers and stabilizers can extend shelf life in comparison with normally pasteurised cream products (six months compared with four weeks).


A versatile ingredient

The versatility of emulsifiers stretches to polymer food packaging solutions. Emulsifiers impregnated into a polymer packaging bag or film provide anti-fogging and anti-static properties. Why does this matter? Fogging in packaged food reduces the visibility of the product, making the product less attractive where consumers are unlikely to pick it up off the shelf. From a quality perspective, the presence of water droplets within the packaging can contribute to faster deterioration. Through helping to increase and maintain consumer appeal, emulsifiers are humble helpers in the battle to reduce food waste.


Playing their part

In recent years, the issue of food waste is receiving plenty of well-organised attention, ranging from SAVE FOOD, a global initiative launched in 2011 by the FAO and Messe Dusseldorf to address food waste throughout the supply chain, to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through increasing food product stability and maintaining freshness and appeal, emulsifiers are playing their part, too, in helping to tackle this pressing problem.

A note of caution, however: If these highly capable ingredients are to play such an important role in the provision of food, yet without having negative consequences for other aspects of our world, manufacturers should emphasise the use of sustainably sourced and produced, plant-based emulsifiers. Anything else would be a waste.


*Food loss is the natural deterioration of quality in agricultural or fisheries products, affecting food safety, nutritional value and economic value, resulting in the food not being consumed. Food waste refers to intentional discarding of food that is fit for human consumption.

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.