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What Are a Stabilisers and Emulsifiers in Food?

What Is a Stabiliser . . . and Why Is It in Our Food?

I must admit I'm a bit obsessed with food labels. Without sounding like the world's most annoying person to eat with, I like to know what's in my food — especially packaged foods. If there are numbers or words I can't pronounce in the ingredient list, I tend to stay away — surely they're not OK, right? But two words that pop up in a lot of pre-packaged foods are "stabilisers" and "emulsifiers", and if you ask me they don't really sound like things we should be eating.

So what are they exactly?

In general, stabilisers in foods prevent the separation of ingredients that are bound together by emulsifiers. According to Transform Health dietician Kiah Witney-Cochrane, they help to steady the liquid or solution that would otherwise separate or not mix together properly. "In the food industry it is necessary to combine ingredients that would otherwise like to stay separated to make the final product we want," says Kiah. Take mayonnaise for example: to make it you need to combine water and oil, therefore an emulsifier and food stabiliser needs to be added to help combine the ingredients and create a smooth unified solution.

Should we be eating them?

According to Kiah, most of the materials used as stabilisers are extracted from various natural, raw materials and incorporated into the foods we eat to give them structure, stability and the eating qualities we expect, like consistency and texture. "Most of the major stabilisers are extracted from plants as well as animal by-products, such as gelatine," says Kiah. "That said, all additives must abide by stringent regulations that are regularly governed to ensure there are no adverse effects on our bodies."

In short, eating foods that contain stabilisers isn't necessarily bad for you, they're made from natural food products already regularly included in our diets. But before you head out and buy every food item containing the stuff, it's important to know a diet that includes a high quantity of foods containing food stabilisers means you're eating large amounts of processed food — and that's never ideal.

Related: Don't Be Fooled By Food Labels — Here's All You Need to Know Before You Buy

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