Emulsifiers: The “unsung heroes” providing stability in unstable times
22 Mar 2023 --- Often overlooked despite being one of the most widely used ingredients in the industry, emulsifiers quietly work behind the scenes to give chocolate its sheen, bread a longer lifespan and ice cream its smoothness. As the primary means of combining and mixing ingredients that otherwise remain separate, such as oil and water, emulsifiers play a vital role in producing a massive variety of F&B products.
FoodIngredientsFirst talks to key players in the emulsifiers space about how rising consumer demand for natural, plant-based emulsifiers with clean labels is driving innovation.
“Emulsifiers are often viewed as the unsung heroes of the food processing industry,” says Philipp Sommer, business director at Lecico.
“They are surface active ingredients which allow a stable emulsion formation, assist in the texturization of a product, can extend shelf life, and play a significant role in shrinkage resistance, preventing syneresis and sedimentation,” he explains.
Sommer notes that benefits such as these, as provided by emulsifiers, are in growing demand.
“Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen an increase in informed consumers who require enhanced nutrition and clean label ingredients. This consumer is better informed and requires products that offer detailed labeling.”
“As consumer demand for healthier products continues to grow, so do the food industry’s requirements for natural emulsifiers. According to Innova Market Insights, 26.5% of all global food and beverage launches recorded by the company in 2020 used one or more clean label claims, whether natural, organic, no additives/preservatives or non-GMO,” he continues.
“In the US, this jumped to 37% of new launches and in 2020, 19.4% of products making a non-GMO claim.”
Sustainability and clean label demands
The COVID-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and ongoing climate change fears have created a rising demand for cheaper, longer-lasting foods.
Consumers want good value for their money, but they also want clean label claims and sustainability concerns to be addressed, along with health and immunity benefits. This is a difficult balance to strike.
“The sustainability narrative is on everyone’s radar, and the emphasis on naturally and ethically-sourced products will continue,” notes Sommer.
Elena Revenko, product line manager lecithin at Cargill, is tracking the same trend.
“It is clear that consumers are paying attention to ingredients, with 55% of EU consumers saying they have become more attentive to the ingredients listed on food and drink over the last 12 months, and 65% of EU consumers saying they’re extremely or very likely to check the ingredient list,” she says.
The emulsifier space is investigating means of adapting to these varied consumer behaviors.
“Bakery manufacturers exploring ways to deliver label-friendly formulations need to balance a clean label ambition with their aim of enhancing shelf life, with consumers also easily throwing out leftover bread at the early onset of staling,” she continues.
“The emulsifiers DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides) and mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (DMG) are typically used to improve the volume, processability and shelf life of bread. However, these ingredients are not perceived as label-friendly by consumers.”
Solving the shelf life issue while maintaining clean labels is difficult, but one emulsifier, in particular, may be the solution.
“The industry is already far advanced in bringing solutions for natural freshness in white bread. However, replacing DATEM and DMG in wholemeal bread is a bigger challenge. This is why viable label-friendly alternatives are in demand, including lecithin.”
Lecithin is a label-friendly emulsifier sourced from soy, sunflower or canola. It’s often used in plant-based dairy alternatives, where it emulsifies and contributes to the perception of a creamier mouthfeel.
“The beauty of lecithin lies in its functional characteristics as an emulsifier,“ says Sommer.
“Regarding the development of dairy-free products, lecithin can help create a smooth and creamy consistency.”
Sommer continues, noting that “For formulators wishing to develop ice cream, natural emulsifiers like lecithin can increase the resistance to rapid meltdown during consumption, further preventing defects like shrinkage and recrystallization during storage and distribution. This is because lecithin, with its hydrophilic and lipophilic properties, can cling in the interface between fat, protein and water.”
“Lecithin is rich in phosphatidylcholine, which is the natural precursor of choline,” continues Sommer.
“Choline was recognized as an important nutrient by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2011. When used as an ingredient, it can contribute to normal homocysteine and lipid metabolism and the maintenance of normal liver function.”
Lecithin is also helpful for the formation of sports drinks, as “Powder wettability and dispersibility can also be significantly improved by lecithination. When powder particles are enveloped by lecithin, they can take on its surface-active properties.”
However, the invasion of Ukraine has impacted the development of certain strains of lecithin.
“While it is true that we have seen supply issues with organic lecithin of different origin and sunflower lecithin coming in from Ukraine, we have managed to secure alternative sources with our parent company, the Avril Group, and we continue to offer high-quality organic lecithin, conventional lecithin and phospholipids,” notes Sommer.
“To offset supply chain challenges, it is critical to collaborate with raw material suppliers to offer a fully integrated and transparent supply chain.”
Adapting to modern crises
The emulsifier space has shown great innovation in reaction to various crises.
“In the last few years, the lecithin market has faced numerous challenges both related to global supply chain issues, but also issues specific to lecithin, such as peanut contamination coming from India, which is the biggest origination area for soy NGM lecithin globally, and geopolitics, such as the war in Ukraine and sanctions from Russia,” says Revenko.
“All of these disruptions trigger market players, such as ingredient producers and food manufacturers, to consider how we make sourcing lecithin more robust to ensure that we continue to nourish the world.”
“To answer this, Cargill plans to broaden its rapeseed offering by adding Leciprime RS & Topcithin fluid grades next to earlier existing Lecimulthin RS & Emulpur RS.”
Revenko believes the war in Ukraine helped spotlight a viable alternative to sunflower lecithin.
“We believe rapeseed would be a perfect offering both to replace the missing flow of sunflower lecithin, which is greatly impacted by war in Ukraine, both due to reduced and very inconsistent flow from Ukraine volume wise and quality wise as well as lecithin from Russia being sanctioned for imports to EU from 8 Jan 2023,” she notes.
“It is also widely grown within the EU, making it the perfect answer to NGM soy.”
Morten Hoffmann Kyed, director of product management at Palsgaard, highlights how the company has adapted to the conflict in a similar fashion.
“The invasion reduced exports to a trickle and left household margarine manufacturers chasing down soybean and rapeseed alternatives while prices rocketed,” he says.
“For many businesses, soy lecithin wasn’t an option, given that it’s an allergen and that 80% of the global crop is GMO, which isn’t acceptable for European consumers,”
“Our response was to develop two lecithin-free alternatives – Palsgaard 0170 using palm oil, and Palsgaard 0172 based on rapeseed – in just two months. These products also address common complaints about lecithin and improved functionality. For example, they are white, whereas lecithin is naturally dark and can affect product appearance.”
Adaptivity is the name of the game for the emulsifiers space, whether adapting to disrupted supply chains or shifting to meet growing consumer demands for plant-based ingredients.
“Consumers have high expectations for plant-based products,” says Neil Morrison, head of Global Sales Technical Service at CP Kelco.
“They are more than willing to try plant-based options, but they still compare the texture to the animal-based version of the product. They want their plant-based products to be “good for you” and the planet. Now add that some commonly used emulsifiers are in short supply or may not meet consumer expectations for plant-based products.”
However, there are means for emulsifiers to meet these expectations.
“For most plant-based beverages, such as those made with almond or soy, there is sufficient protein content to stabilize the oil-in-water emulsion,” Morrison continues.
“Gellan gum can help suspend the insoluble ingredients, such as added calcium, and prevent fat droplets from coalescing. Coconut, however, is high in fat and low in protein content. This can have an impact on viscosity, solubility and emulsion properties, causing oil droplets to float to the top (creaming) or the bottom (sedimentation).”
“Gellan gum can be combined with carrageenan to keep ingredients evenly suspended and stabilized. This will give the product a consistent appearance and texture over shelf life.”
Mimicking the texture, taste and, crucially, the function of traditional ingredients proves an ongoing struggle in the search for plant-based alternatives.
“In dressings and condiments like mayonnaise, egg yolk or buttermilk solids are used as emulsifiers,“ says Morrison, although there are means of replicating the emulsifying functionality of traditional ingredients.
“Xanthan gum can assist in the emulsion stability by thickening the water phase and preventing oil droplets from coalescing and rising to the surface, so the dressing does not separate.”
According to Robertson, emulsifiers are effective in meeting growing consumer demand for plant-based textures equal to traditional offerings.
“Emulsifiers are well-positioned for the growing consumer trend of plant-based foods since they are produced from plant-based sources,” he says.
“They can provide a host of functional benefits to help solve the technical challenges related to the quality of plant-based alternatives.”
Cracking the problem
Revenko has experienced the same issues in attempting to replicate egg emulsification.
“An egg may appear to be a straightforward ingredient, but in bakery applications, it performs quite a unique role,” she says.
“Egg yolk has emulsifying properties, while egg white brings aeration and stabilization functionality during the baking process.”
“This is why you have very indulgent sweet cake formulations with a very high egg yolk content and others, such as meringue, that are solely made with egg white. It all means that to replace an egg successfully, you need a combination of various ingredients, depending on the specific recipe.”
Revenko is confident that Cargill has innovated viable emulsifier solutions to egg replacement.
“By employing a multi-ingredient blending approach and through effective formulation finetuning, the Infuse by Cargill service offering model can help bakers create high-quality vegan sweet bakery products without sacrificing texture or taste,” she explains.
“The Cargill bakery applications team has created an indulgent plant-based muffin prototype, which shows that through careful ingredient blending and processing, it’s possible to create a label-friendly plant-based alternative that delivers a similar texture and crumb structure to classic muffins.”
Kyed is confident about where Palsgaard stands in the current market.
“With global demand for plant-based products increasing, we’re already ahead of the curve as all our emulsifiers are vegetable-based,” he says.
“While research shows that consumers are generally happy with existing plant-based products, there are areas for improvement, such as less sedimentation in plant-based milks, products having a longer shelf life, and enhanced texture and creaminess.”
“A good example of an area where our emulsifiers can help manufacturers overcome supply chain issues is the industrial cake production sector, which has been hit hard by egg shortages and soaring prices, partly due to ongoing avian flu outbreaks,” he says.
“Our Palsgaard SA series of powdered emulsifiers allows a reduction in egg use by an average of 20%, translating to a typical cost saving of around 5% and helping to offset egg-procurement issues.”
Meeting sustainability demands
However, Kyed flags that meeting further consumer demands for sustainability is difficult for emulsifier producers.
“Another significant issue is demand for sustainably produced ingredients, which will only increase. All our emulsifiers are sourced as sustainably as possible. With palm oil ingredients, we use only RSPO-certified raw materials, so our complete product range is MB- or SG-certified.”
Another challenge emulsifier producers face is the massive amount of energy needed for emulsifier manufacturing.
“One of the big challenges for any emulsifier manufacturer is that production is extremely energy-intensive, which is a particular issue when customers are increasingly looking to reduce their environmental impact,” Kyed notes.
“Emulsifiers are produced from biorenewable oilseed sources, many of which are sustainably sourced. Furthermore, producing emulsifiers using renewable energy sources is becoming much more commonplace, thereby reducing their carbon footprint and environmental impact,” he says.
“The functionality provided by emulsifiers in the production of shelf-stable packaged foods reduces yield loss in the production process and improves quality and shelf-stability, both of which contribute to reduced food waste.”
By James Davies
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