The controversy around ultra-processed food was the topic of a guest post by Julie Jones in June. Shortly after that I received an anonymous comment on the post shown below:
Congrats for the great articles!
I am from Brazil, where the demonization of ‘ultra-processed food’ has started.
Recently, Dr Monteiro has recorded a video with a famous chef called Rita Lobo (who works with him), saying, between other fallacies, that “Emulsifiers in ultraprocessed foods are detergents. As they are detergents, what we know today is that these emulsifiers take away the protection that we have in the cells in our gut. They take off that layer of fat that protects, which makes a selection of the molecules that get into our blood, into our body. So this can be associated, for example, with allergies. Since there is the passage of molecules that should not pass, they pass due to the emulsifier.”
I am wondering if you could write something about it.
The quotes above were taken from a Google translation of Rito Lobo’s interview of Dr. Carlos Monteiro, the father of the NOVA classification of foods. Contact me for a copy of that translation. Below is a response on emulsifiers in foods from Julie Jones:
Claims that nearly “all ultra-processed foods contain emulsifiers” and that “emulsifiers are practically detergents” needs to be corrected on several fronts. First, as noted in earlier blogs the is no legal definition or agreement on what constitutes a ‘processed food’ (PF) or an ultra- processed food (UPF). While NOVA categorizes any food with an additive and any sauce as UPF, many UPFs, including sauces, do not contain emulsifiers. For example, a simple sauce, organic tamari, with only three ingredients -water, organic soybeans and salt – has no added emulsifiers. In like manner, other sauces – ketchups, barbeque sauces, salsas to name a few – may or may not contain added emulsifiers. Similarly, baked goods such as cookies, crackers, chips, and breads and dairy products such as yogurts and ice cream may or may not have emulsifier additives.
Second, calling emulsifiers ‘detergents’ implies that UPFs carry the same danger as household cleaners. Such language generates unwarranted fear and distrust of foods we eat. In actuality, the human body produces all kinds of emulsifiers (aka detergents) such as bile acids. Emulsifiers have a part of the molecule that likes to be in water and a part that likes to be in fat. This enables fat soluble components to be utilized (or in the case of detergents removed from clothing, etc.). Bile acids facilitate digestion of dietary fats by allowing water-soluble enzymes (lipases) to penetrate ingested fat and produce components that can absorbed.
During the breakdown of the most common fats (triglycerides), glycerol and mono- and di-glycerides are formed. Each of these function as emulsifiers or become emulsifiers. In fact, mono- and di-glycerides comprise 75% of the emulsifiers added to food. When these are found on a food label, they may have names that scare consumers. For example, succinylated monoglyceride is the combination of succinate, a component produced as carbohydrate breaks down to produce energy, and monoglyceride. Polyglycerols are several glycerols joined with a common acids such as lactic acid (in dairy) or acetic acid (in vinegar),
Another natural emulsifier is found in every cell membrane -and thus all food- is lecithin. It and related phospholipids allow the transit of both fat soluble and water-soluble components into cells. Lecithin is found in highest amount in egg yolk, but is found in organ and red meats, seafood, eggs, legumes, soy, and green vegetables and oils. It is extracted from soybeans, canola, corn, sunflower seeds, or wheat germ for use food as well as cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Limited data show that pharmaceutical doses of these ‘detergents’ may reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, support the immune system, help promote a healthy lining of the digestive tract, and help prevent mastitis in nursing women. Doses below 5000 mg per are safe unless a person is allergic to the source of the lecithin such as eggs or soy.
A few studies have suggested that the ingestion of a diet high in emulsifiers affects the gut mucous layer and microbiome. However, the participants ingested 15,000 mg per day. Ingestion of such high doses from dietary sources is unlikely as the US FDA calculated in 2006 that the total average daily intake was 395 mg/person/day from all emulsifiers. Even if intakes increased 10-fold in the last 14 years, the dose would be below the 5000 mg/d documented as safe and well below the 15,000 mg/d fed in the study. Further, it is unlikely that emulsifiers such as lecithin adversely affect the mucous layer as phosphatidyl choline, aka lecithin, is used as a treatment for ulcerative colitis.
Impugning the safety of emulsifiers used in food by calling them ‘detergents’ disregards the thorough testing that these and other additives have undergone. The data have been by teams of experts and health authorities such as those at the FDA and the WHO Joint Expert Committee of on Food Additives.
Some food additives that are emulsifiers are also sources of dietary fiber. This includes all the gums added to foods such as salad dressings, cottage cheese and baked goods. Dietary fiber intakes in nearly all countries are far below recommended levels. For example, under 4% of Americans meet the recommendations. Fiber has many health functions that have been shown to reduce a number of chronic diseases, improve immune function, and act as prebiotics to help with gut health and the microbiome.[5-8] Some types of fiber such as guar gum or oat bran may help with fullness, a factor very important for those trying to reduce calories. UPFs with added fiber could help address the fiber gap.
Thus, the presence or absence of an added emulsifier is not a sound reason to choose or avoid a food. Emulsifiers may improve texture and flavor and extend shelf life and reduce rancidity. This can decrease cost to consumers, impact food safety, and reduce food waste. All are important at any time. But during CoVID extended shelf life means fewer shopping trips, and lower cost is important especially for those whose budgets are pressured due to changes forced by CoVID circumstances.
Avoiding foods such as double-fiber whole grain breads, breakfast cereals, yogurts, and frozen spinach souffles because they contain emulsifiers or other additives will do little to improve the nutritional quality of our diets and may actually impair it. Rather choose foods that will add complete the number of servings needed for each of the food groups to form a healthy and balanced diet.
 Leonard, J. Everything you need to know about lecithin. Medical News Today. September 5, 2017
 Partridge D, Lloyd KA, Rhodes JM, Walker AW, Johnstone AM, Campbell BJ. Food additives: Assessing the impact of exposure to permitted emulsifiers on bowel and metabolic health – introducing the FADiets study. Nutr Bull. 2019 Dec;44(4):329-349. doi: 10.1111/nbu.12408. Epub 2019 Nov 25. PMID: 31866761; PMCID: PMC6899614.
 Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition US Food and Drug Administration. Guidance for Industry: Estimating Dietary Intake of Substances in Food. FDA series of Guidance documents. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/guidance-industry-estimating-dietary-intake-substances-food. 2006
 Stremmel W, Hanemann A, Ehehalt R, Karner M, Braun A. Phosphatidylcholine (lecithin) and the mucus layer: Evidence of therapeutic efficacy in ulcerative colitis?. Dig Dis. 2010;28(3):490-496. doi:10.1159/000320407
 Veronese N, Solmi M, Caruso MG, et al. Dietary fiber and health outcomes: an umbrella review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Am J Clin Nutr. 2018;107(3):436-444. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqx082
 Slavin J. Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients. 2013;5(4):1417-1435. Published 2013 Apr 22. doi:10.3390/nu5041417
 Fuller S, Beck E, Salman H, Tapsell L. New Horizons for the Study of Dietary Fiber and Health: A Review. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2016;71(1):1-12. doi:10.1007/s11130-016-0529-6
 Holscher HD. Dietary fiber and prebiotics and the gastrointestinal microbiota. Gut Microbes. 2017;8(2):172-184. doi:10.1080/19490976.2017.1290756