Last week I discussed ‘leaky brain’ which is a close ‘relative’ condition to ‘leaky gut’. One of the ‘culprits’ linked to ‘leaky gut’ and subsequently to ‘leaky brain’ are emulsifiers. Emulsifiers are just one of many ingredients aka ‘edible food like substances’ (1) found in processed foods, that can damage our health, and are linked to many conditions from allergies to cancer.
Before discussing the horrors of emulsifiers, we need to define ‘processed’ foods which include any foods that have been altered (either chemically or mechanically) in some way during preparation. Mechanical processing consists of foods that have been frozen, baked, canned, ground up, and/or dried.
Chemical processing includes food that totally or partially contains refined ingredients and artificial substances, e.g. most biscuits. Another example are the ‘breakfast in a drink’ products which generally contain the following ingredients:
Filtered water, skim milk powder, wheat maltodextrin, soy protein, cane sugar, vegetable oils (sunflower, canola), flavours, inulin, hi-maize starch, oat flour, mineral (calcium), food acid (332), vegetable gums (460, 466, 407), stabiliser (452), salt, vitamins (C, niacin, A, B12, B6, B2, B1, folate).
Most people realise that food is information, especially since the discovery of epigenetics. In other words, food gives instructions to our cells, affecting everything from our health to our behaviour. Despite this however, as you can see above, the ingredients label of most processed food look like the instructions for a chemistry experiment.
Of course some processed foods are healthy, for example frozen peas. However, most usually contain excess salt, sugar, fat and artificial ingredients. Whilst not a gold-standard scientific study, there are concerning statistics which show that every time a population adopts a typical average, highly processed Western diet, they become sick within just a few years.
Unfortunately the food industry is very clever at deceiving us into eating the ‘food-like substances’ found in processed foods. Take this line from a food industry journal in which one company said ‘innovation in the food industry will continue in areas of “perceived” health and wellness, convenience, and ethnic products.’ Note the word ‘perceived’. Integrity in the food industry would naturally mean there would be no need for roughly 60 different names each for monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sugar.
Emulsifiers are my least favourite processed food ingredient, adding no nutritional value or even flavour. Some emulsifiers, e.g. cellulose which is mostly derived from wood pulp, are mainly used to add bulk to foods, increasing their profitability. Others, such as carrageenan, are used to improve the texture of foods, for example by keeping sauces smooth and non-dairy ‘milks’ from separating.
As well as having no nutritional value, emulsifiers can also lead to increased risk of cancer, inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome and increased gut permeability (2, 3). Interestingly, two little known facts about carrageenan are that it has been used by pharmaceutical companies to test anti-inflammatory drugs, because of its ability to cause inflammation, and partly for that reason it has been banned in European baby formulas.
The easiest way to avoid emulsifiers (and other food additives), without needing a chemistry degree is to only eat real, whole, unprocessed foods that are as close to nature as possible. Lastly, when you are next at the supermarket ask yourself; do you want to send good instructions to your cells (in the form of ingredients designed in nature) or bad instructions (in the form of ingredients designed in a lab)?
Dr Tracy Chandler BSc (Hons) MBChB FRNZCGP FNZSCM, PGDipSEM, Cert Dermoscopy, Cert Homeopathy, MACNEM member, gained her degree in England and worked as a GP in Timaru before doing postgraduate training in sports, skin and integrative medicine.
She specialised in integrative (wellness) medicine in line with her increasing interest in the impact of nutrition and environment on health and wellbeing.