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Emulsifiers and Thickeners — Are They Hampering Your Gut Health?

Even though you’re eating Paleo, have you noticed some emulsifiers and thickeners, like gums and soy lecithin, sneaking their way into your foods? That’s because more than a dozen of these sketchy ingredients are currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Although they’re “generally recognized as safe,” new data concerning these ingredients might make you reconsider whether you recognize them as worth putting into your body.

Your Gut Microbiome Is Affected

A recent study, published in March 2015 in the scientific journal Nature, reports that emulsifiers and thickeners do indeed affect our gut microbiome. More specifically, researchers saw changes in the diversity and abundance of the different bacteria composing our gut flora and even noticed increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut).

Researchers also found that these food additives are capable of breaking down the heavy mucus layer protecting our gut, thus allowing the bacteria in our gut to come in direct contact with our gut lining—resulting in increased inflammation. Some experts think that the damage cause to this layer could have something to do with today’s higher rates of inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis.

This was a mechanistic study—meaning that it sought to uncover the mechanism of our gut—and we need more studies to really clarify the impact of these ingredients on our health, especially digestive health, considering the tremendous importance of a healthy gut flora and an intact gut lining.

Weight Gain and Insulin Resistance

The same study in Nature also reported that, compared to mice drinking regular water, adding the emulsifiers carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 to water caused the rodents to double the amount of calories they ate. This obviously resulted in weight gain, obesity, low-grade systemic inflammation, insulin resistance, and even metabolic syndrome.

Of course, researchers used high doses of these additives—levels which would correspond to humans eating ice cream all day long—but they report similar changes even when using concentrations corresponding to only 10 percent of what is currently approved by the FDA.

To demystify these strange ingredients, let’s take a more in-depth look at some of the most common emulsifiers and thickeners you can encounter in foods: xanthan gum, guar gum, carrageenan, and soy lecithin.

Xanthan gum

What is it?

This emulsifier is a large polysaccharide produced by a bacteria as a result of fermenting sugars and other substrates that sometimes include corn, soy, or wheat starch. The purified and dried powder extracted from this process is xanthan gum. This emulsifier cannot be digested by humans, and it is often added to gluten-free products to improve their texture.

What do the studies show?

Both animal and human studies reveal that xanthan gum can cause looser stools with a higher water content. Consuming xanthan gum in high doses also leads to decreased serum cholesterol. Though the gut microbiome is adaptable—over time becoming more efficient at breaking down xanthan gum as it produces short-chain fatty acids, which short term could be a good thing—we are unsure about damaged caused by long-term consumption.

Although xanthan gum appears safe in adults, it should not be given to babies. The only concerning piece of evidence with xanthan gum was found when using it to thicken breastmilk or infant formula, which resulted in a higher risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis (serious gut inflammation and damage).

Guar gum

What is it?

Guar gum comes from Pakistan and India, where it grows as a plant known as the guar bean. Like other thickeners, it too is often added to many foods that come in a box or can—which includes Paleo foods like coconut milk.

What do the studies show?

Guar gum appears generally safe. However, because it is a soluble fiber, it is no surprise that it might cause digestive problems, especially gassiness, abdominal discomfort, and looser stools. The dose needed to cause these side effects can vary, but the more sensitive you are, the more likely it is that you’ll react to even the smallest amounts found in a normal serving of coconut ice cream or gluten-free bread.

Guar gum has also been associated with leaky gut syndrome in rats and even an overgrowth of the bacteria E. coli within the small intestines. It is unclear, but definitely plausible, that there might be a link with small-intestinal bacterial overgrowth.

Guar gum is also used as a prebiotic, a group of carbohydrates that humans can’t digest but that can feed and benefit your gut flora. Some researchers have even noticed better success rates (87 percent compared to 62 percent) when combining guar gum with Rifaximin (an antibiotic) to treat small-intestinal bacterial overgrowth, a common cause of digestive issues. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to take guar gum if you’re being treated for this disorder, but it certainly indicates that getting prebiotics, ideally from real food, is a good idea, making treatment more effective as you nourish your beneficial gut flora.

Soy lecithin

What is it?

This emulsifier is a byproduct found in virtually any packaged food—including many brands of quality dark chocolate and even health supplements.

After soybean oil is extracted from soybeans using hexane (a chemical solvent), there is a degumming process to isolate the lecithin, which is then dried and bleached. Sounds yummy, right? Soy lecithin perfect example of how the food industry cleverly transformed something that used to be a waste product (of soybean-oil production) into a ubiquitous ingredient.

What do the studies show?

There is data demonstrating that significant amounts of hexane and pesticide residues might be present in soy lecithin. And it is important to remember that 90 percent of the soy produced in the United States is of the genetically modified variety—despite this, there still are no studies proving that GMOs are safe for humans in the long run. Be wary: Even organic food containing soy lecithin usually uses the soy lecithin sourced from conventional and nonorganic agriculture.

It is very likely that any benefits come from the choline present in the phosphatidylcholine in soy lecithin. Most Americans are unfortunately deficient in choline, but the good news is that you don’t need soy lecithin at all to get enough—just eat egg yolks and liver!


What is it?

Carrageenan consists of a polysaccharide that comes from red algae. It has been used for its gelling properties for a long time, but it’s only recently that it has started being used in larger amounts and in a more refined form. It is routinely added to dairy alternatives, like almond and coconut milks.

What do the studies show?

Many animal studies have associated this additive with cancerous lesions in the gut—but it is important to acknowledge that these studies used poligeenan, a degraded form of carrageenan. While carrageenan is on the “generally recognized as safe” list, poligeenan is not. So far, no studies are clearly showing that carrageenan is a carcinogen.

Fortunately, less than 5 percent of food-grade carrageenan is potentially contaminated with poligeenan—although some researchers estimate that up to 20 percent of carrageenan could be degraded into the dangerous poligeenan within our digestive tract.

Some studies on animals like rats, guinea pigs, and pigs show that carrageenan could contribute to digestive issues, a leaky gut, and gut inflammation. Importantly, in all of these studies the doses used were usually much higher than what you would encounter in your diet.

With regard to carrageenan, there aren’t many human studies, and the ones we do have look at the ingredient’s effects at the cellular level. Some of them show that exposure to the additive is associated with markers that could contribute to inflammation and a leaky gut.

The Bottom Line

Thickeners and emulsifiers all have at least one thing in common: They are highly processed ingredients that are hard to digest. We are definitely not talking about real food here.

Our take-away message is that all of them have the potential to worsen digestive processes, resulting in things like bloating, abdominal discomfort, and bowel-movement changes. Many of them also cause inflammation and contribute to a leaky gut. And there is even a risk that these additives could affect your weight and disrupt your blood-sugar and insulin regulation.  

It’s true that we’re not 100 percent sure that these thickeners and emulsifiers affect everyone in the same way—but it is clear that people with digestive issues would do best avoiding these lab-made ingredients. People with a sensitivity to corn, soy, or wheat should also avoid xanthan gum and soy lecithin. Plus, it seems prudent to avoid giving any of these to babies and young children with an immature digestive tract.

What to Do? Eat Real Food!

I know—avoiding all emulsifiers and thickeners is not an easy task. Because even if you already eat Paleo, it turns out that you must still remain careful, as some foods with a Paleo label may in fact contain certain nocuous ingredients. But now that you know this, you can do your homework and review the ingredients list, look for bad actors, and try to find safer alternatives.

Coconut milk and chocolate are probably the most common sources of thickeners and emulsifiers in the Paleo diet. And it is possible to find chocolate without soy lecithin, or coconut milk without xanthan and guar gum—you’ll just need to do a bit more research. Or try making them yourself!

Create your own coconut milk and chocolate: Use coconut cream concentrate, or the whole coconut, to make coconut milk. And for dark chocolate, melt cacao butter or coconut oil with unsweetened cacao powder, adding a bit of your favorite sweetener for flavor. Your gut will thank you!

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