This Hidden Ingredient Could Be Sabotaging Your Gut Health

by Rachel Stuck, RDN


It is well known that a healthful diet is essential for supporting and maintaining a diverse and stable gut microbiome. Vegetables, fruits, high-quality proteins, and healthy fats are the foundation of a gut-healthy diet. However, the sauces, dressings, condiments, breads, and convenience foods that we use to prepare and add to our real-foods often contain ingredients that might be sabotaging our gut health: emulsifiers.


Emulsifiers are added to foods to prevent the separation of oily and water-soluble ingredients. They also help to improve shelf life and texture, and stabilize a mixture at its desired consistency. Emulsifiers are used in a variety of non-food products, such as makeup, lotions, and medications as well. While emulsifiers in topical products may affect skin health.



The Lowdown on Emulsifiers:

  1. There are three types of emulsifiers: natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic. Emulsifiers that occur naturally in foods like eggs and sunflower oil are safe to consume, but the semi-synthetic and synthetic varieties should be avoided or included only sparingly. Synthetic emulsifiers are chemical ingredients that have been created in a laboratory setting. Semi-synthetic emulsifiers are a combination of glycerol and natural fatty acids extracted from animal or plant sources.
  2. Emulsifiers have been shown to decrease the diversity of the gut microbiome, which increases the risk of obesity and chronic illnesses, like inflammatory bowel disease. Researchers concluded that the decreased diversity was the result of the damage to the important mucosal layer that lines the intestinal cell wall and creates a stable environment for bacteria to thrive.
  3. The intake of synthetic emulsifiers, like polysorbate 80 (P80) and carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC), may increase risk of metabolic syndrome, a coupling of common obese-related disorders including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and liver disease.
  4. In a study that examined the effect of emulsifiers on the human gut microbiome, researchers introduced P80 and CMC to a mucosal simulator of the human intestinal microbial ecosystem. (Yep, that’s exactly what it sounds like—a fake human gut that acts like a human gut, bacteria and all!) They found that these emulsifiers increased the pro-inflammatory response and led to intestinal inflammation.


Keep Emulsifiers Out of Your Shopping Cart

Now that we better understand the impact that emulsifiers have on the gut, how do you find them and rid them from your diet? The challenging part of emulsifiers is that they are found in just about every packaged and prepared store-bought item, even the seemingly healthy foods like lite balsamic vinaigrette or unsweetened almond milk. A good practice to avoid emulsifiers and other potentially harmful food additives is to read the ingredient lists of breads, crackers, pastries, ice creams, condiments, chocolate products, milk, milk alternatives—and anything else that has a nutrition label—before you buy them. Review the labels for any ingredients that you can’t pronounce, and aim to avoid the foods with long lists of chemical ingredients. Use the list below to identify some of the most common emulsifiers to avoid.


Common Synthetic and Semi-synthetic Emulsifiers:

  • Carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC)
  • Polysorbate 80 (P80)
  • Carrageenan
  • Polyglycerols
  • Xanthan gum
  • Other “gums”
  • Soy Lecithin

Common Foods that Often Contain Emulsifiers:

  • Condiments
  • Salad dressings
  • Chocolate milk
  • Cottage cheese
  • Heavy cream
  • Ice cream
  • Kefir
  • Almond, rice, and soy milk
  • Nondairy frozen desserts
  • Pickles
  • Whipped toppings
  • Deli meats
  • Store-bought baked goods
  • And so much more!


Out with the bad, in with the good!

Identifying emulsifiers in your pantry, fridge, and freezer can be overwhelming. Remember that it may be impossible to completely eliminate emulsifiers from your diet, but you can make an effort to reduce your intake. However, don’t throw out everything in your kitchen. A slow and steady elimination of emulsifiers is realistic. Consider using tape or a marker to identify the foods that contain emulsifiers and aim to make your own or replace them with a more natural variety during your next shopping trip.

Making your own versions of your favorite condiments, dressings, desserts, or pickles with whole-food ingredients can actually save you time, money, and frustration. Your gut will thank you too! Salad dressing is very quick and easy to make, so it’s a great recipe to start with. Check out our lemon dill salad dressing recipe below.


Lemon Dill Dressing

Whisk together the follow ingredients:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon dried dill

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon dried parsley

A kiss of sea salt

Splash of water to stretch dressing, if needed

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Shake thoroughly before each use.


Including real-food ingredients with all meals is essential to supporting your gut microbiome. While it is important to review ingredient lists of all foods, first focus on including a variety of fibrous fruits and vegetables, high-quality proteins, and healthy fats that will promote and support a healthy gut microbiome.



About the Author

Photo: Rachel Stuck, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Rachel Stuck has a background in culinary arts and nutrition counseling. Rachel takes a positive approach to nutrition: she avoids recommending restrictive diets and instead focuses on helping people choose foods that promote health and well-being. She is passionate about empowering and assisting Ixcela members as they develop their unique, gut-healthy lifestyles.

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Interested in learning more about Ixcela? Check out Ixcela’s microbiome test, personalized nutrition and fitness plans, and other tools to help you optimize your health.