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When it comes to colouring agents or sweeteners, the name itself on a list of additives tells you what the substance does; but what about emulsifiers, an additive that features largely in additive lists?

You'll find emulsifiers almost everywhere – in baked goods, ready meals, cake mixes, icecream, sweets, margarine, ready sauces, puff pastry, coffee creamers, chocolate and even babyfood. The most important function is to blend two things that would not naturally mix, like oil and water. Think of making a vinaigrette sauce for your salad: you have to stir or shake the oil and vinegar vigorously to get them to mix and even then, if you leave the dressing standing for a while, they'll separate again. Adding mustard, honey or egg yolk, which contain the natural emulsifier lecithin, help to distribute the fat droplets in water and your dressing will be more stable. The food industry, however, mostly uses synthetic emulsifiers. Some of these are produced from natural raw materials, for example, lecithin (E 322) is mostly extracted from soya beans, rape seeds or sunflower seeds.

Key aids for the food industry

Emulsifiers don't only bind fats and water, but also fats and air or fluids and gases. For example, emulsifiers make it easier to produce a light and foamy icecream and in a bread dough it makes sure that the tiny carbon-dioxide bubbles are evenly distributed. A lot of low-fat products couldn't be made without an emulsifier; this is because the lower fat content is achieved by replacing fat with water and the fat-water blend must be kept stable – a job for emulsifiers. In addition emulsifiers in low-fat products create a good mouth feel and a fuller flavour. In industrial bakeries, emulsifiers make sure that the bread dough remains stable even with long standing times, that mechanical production runs fast and smoothly and that bread and cakes always come off the production line with the same consistency. If it's bread rolls that are being produced, emulsifiers boost the volume and inhibit drying out. They improve the melting behaviour of cocoa-based coatings, slow down melting for icecream, ensure smoother melted chocolate and stop fats that are being heated from spitting and foaming.

Organic standards ban the use of most emulsifiers in organic products and many manufacturers of organic chocolate even prefer not to use the permitted emulsifier, lecithin.

Source: Katja Niedzwezky, Britta Klein, www.aid.de