Do you like your mayonnaise smooth and consistent? How about your ice cream creamy? Peanut butter you don’t have to mix every time you use it? Low-fat butter? You can attribute all of these modern marvels to emulsifiers in foods.
Below we take a look at what emulsifiers are, what they do and some examples that we can all be thankful for. If you want to learn more about food science and even pick up some professional certification, check out this awesome HACCP retail food course that includes lessons on bacterial growth, pathogens and hazard analysis.
What Are Emulsifiers?
Emulsifiers are actually pretty awesome in terms of their simplicity and ingenuity. Basically, we desire emulsifiers with foods that have predominantly large portions of both oil and water. However, emulsifiers are also responsible for allowing us to make good-tasting, low-fat foods, as well. As we know, oil and water don’t like to mix. This is why natural peanut butter needs to be hand-churned and why un-emulsified mayonnaise looks like yellow soup.
Polar Molecules: Emulsifiers are simply molecules that attach to both oil and water. They have two ends, like a magnet. One end is hydrophilic, which means it has a strong attraction to water; the other end is hydrophobic, which means it has an aversion to water and will subsequently cling to anything that does not bond with water (oil, obviously). This allows emulsifiers to make oily foods almost perfectly homogenous.
Why Do We Use Emulsifiers?
I’ve been stressing the fact that emulsifiers make food more appealing (most of the time they do). But they also serve to prolong freshness in many foods. Oil helps to preserve food (which is why if you use more butter or some EVOO when baking bread, the bread will stay softer and fresher longer), while water is a breeding ground for unwanted growths. Emulsifiers help oil to be evenly distributed, especially in lower-fat foods.
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Much of this will go in one ear and out the other, but it’s interesting nonetheless. One of the most commonly used emulsifiers is lecithins, a mixture of phospholipids that can be found in soybeans, egg yolks and other high-protein sources. This is commonly used in baked goods and low-fat solutions. The other two most common emulsifiers are mono- and diglycerides from fatty acids. The former can be found in natural or organic compounds, such as the fat or oil from vegetables or animals. The latter is actually partly synthetic, though it still originates with the same vegetable and animal fat as monoglycerides.
Use of Emulsifiers In Foods
Chocolate is an interesting example. Emulsifiers seem unnecessary, and this is partially true. If you’ve ever stored chocolate in the fridge or freezer for too long, or left it in a warm cupboard for too long, you probably witnessed the chocolate turn white. This is a result of an emulsifier breaking down, which prevents this from happening much earlier. So in the case of chocolate, the emulsifier serves a very unique and specific purpose. There are, of course, other emulsifiers in chocolate that keep it smooth and allow it be molded into virtually any shape imaginable.
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Emulsifiers are essential to making thinner chocolates (for dipping, coating candy bars, etc.) or extremely low-fat chocolate that still tastes delicious. In fact, just in the past decade or so an emulsifier/fake-chocolate compound has been used to replace most mass produced chocolate and candy bars, so what we are actually eating is a lesser-grade chocolate substitute made primarily out of castor oil that simply mimics the taste of real chocolate. It’s simultaneously interesting and disturbing.
- High-Quality Processed Meat
Low-quality meat is bound to have emulsifiers, too, but they’re much more interesting in high-quality processed meats, such as gourmet sausages. Sausages are an interesting food for emulsifiers because we normally think of emulsifiers as being used in foods that are liquid or at least viscous (ice cream before it’s frozen, chocolate when it’s melted, etc.). But when meats are processed and mixed, emulsifiers ensure that all the delicious animal fats and oils are finely distributed throughout the meat. The common emulsifiers are work here are the mono- and diglycerides we talked about earlier.
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- Baked Goods
When it comes to your baked goods, emulsifiers are a godsend. By using a combination of dough strengtheners and softeners, we can make breads and pastries that have better texture, more plump, a good crust and a tender core. The reason emulsifiers are a godsend here is that they allow us to make these perfect baked goods without using a bucketful of butter. Instead, they make a little bit of fat go a long way. Whereas you would need a significant percentage of fat or oil to make natural bread soft and voluminous, you can use less than 1% emulsifier for ideal consistencies (and often even much lower than that).
- Hard Candy
The bright, perfect colors and consistencies of hard candy are the result of emulsifiers. They are actually the side-effect of using emulsifiers. In the case of hard candy, emulsifiers are used to decrease friction among the particles of the main ingredients: sugar, water, flavoring, etc. This allows the candy to be, literally, perfectly consistent and to dissolve more predictably.
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- Ice Cream
Ice cream is one of the greatest inventions of all time, and modern ice cream owes a lot to emulsifiers. Usually, ice cream is emulsifier-free until it’s time to be frozen. I know I don’t need to stress the fact the emulsifiers keep ice cream smooth, but you might not know that they also keep ice cream from melting quickly. This is critical to making it home from the grocery store on a hot day without ruining your ice cream. And even though a small fraction of your ice cream still melts, the emulsifiers help it re-freeze without turning into pure ice. Another thing you might not know is that ice cream is a combination of ice crystals and a kind of lathery milk mixture. Melting, without emulsifiers (and sometimes even regardless), can cause these to separate. This is why ice-cream that has been taken in and out of the freezer many times develops a layer of ice crystals on top. Of course, this applies to almost all frozen deserts and treats.
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