What are Emulsifiers

Emulsions Explained


February 6, 2022

Welcome to another lesson in Eatomology 101 This article will explore the role different emulsifying agents play in combining food ingredients in your favorite recipes.

What are Emulsifiers?

Emulsifiers are what help keep certain flavors, such as oil and water, from separating. They also help create a more stable mix of ingredients in products like dressings or mayonnaise. You can find them in processed foods in the store or make your own. Emulsifiers can be made up of proteins, starches, or fatty acids. Emulsifiers are commonly used in recipes around the world, but if you don’t know what they are or why they’re being called for you won’t be able to judge what your recipe needs on your own, especially if you need to substitute something. That’s why knowing what you can use as an emulsifying agent is so helpful, but first, let’s start with the problem emulsifiers solve.

The Oil & Water Mixing Problem

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In the same way, two positive ends of a magnet will repel each other, oil and water will not mix because water is composed of polar molecules and oil is not.

My favorite example is making your own salad dressing; it’s what I always use when explaining emulsifiers. In a typical salad dressing recipe, water and oil are two of the main ingredients, you’d think you can just put them in a bowl with salt, pepper, and some spices and be done, but as soon as you stop stirring, the oil and water will separate because they don’t mix well with each other.

That’s where emulsifiers come in, they allow two liquids that for some reason don’t want to mix work together without anyone having to stir forever. Once you add the emulsifying agent, it’s called an emulsion.

Other common examples of emulsions are creams, sauces, aiolis, vinaigrettes, margarine, butter, and other spreads.

How Do Emulsifiers Work?

In their simplest sense, natural emulsifiers enhance the mixing of two substances that would otherwise not mix. Emulsifier molecules have a hydrophilic (water-loving) end and a hydrophobic (oil-loving) end. The hydrophilic head of the molecule is attracted to the hydrophobic tail. When you mix an emulsifier with water and fat/oil vigorously, you can create a stable emulsion that brings together the water particles with the oil particles. The end result is called an emulsion. Emulsions are thicker than the water or fat/oil they contain, which is a useful property for making tasty dressings and creamy sauces with the perfect smooth texture for delicious baked products.

Oil in Water Emulsion vs. Water in Oil Emulsion

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There are two different types of emulsions; oil in water and water in oil. The difference is just like it sounds, if water is added to an oil base it will be an oil in water emulsion, like milk. If oil is added to water, it will be the opposite, like butter.

What Can You Use as an Emulsifier?

Typically they’re either proteins or starches turned into mixable food additives or thickening agents. Starches can be corn, potato, or wheat products, whereas proteins typically come from eggs, soybeans, soy lecithin, and other legumes.

Common Emulsifiers You Probably Have Already have in your kitchen include;

  • Egg Yolk
  • Mustards
  • Soy Sauce
  • Corn Starch
  • Flours
  • Guar Gum
  • Xanthan Gum – use this if you’re on a low-carb or keto diet

Important Emulsion Facts

  • For packaged foods, research suggests the shelf life is generally recognized as about one month.
  • The food industry has used different emulsifers for many years and the FDA has found no negative impact of consuming natural emulsifiers on human health at the average daily human intake level (about 1 g/day) (Source).
  • Some research suggests synthetic emulsifiers may cause inflammatory bowel disease (Source).

Practice With Emulsions

All of the science and know-how isn’t useful if you can’t eat it right? Well to practice what you’ve learned I’m going to suggest starting by creating your very own salad dressings which is really just a water in oil emulsion. It’s my favorite example of an emulsion because it’s so simple. You should have everything you need in your everyday kitchen utensil cupboard.

Try it with high-quality olive oil, a vinegar of your choice (you can also use lemon juice), salt, pepper, and spices to suit, and put them all in a bowl. You’ll notice the oil and vinegar do not mix. Now for the magic of an emulsifying agent. Add a little bit of dijon mustard, but there are many different emulsifers you can use as well, to the bowl and stir. Everything should come together to create a uniform mixture or stable emulsion if you want to be scientific. Now you can add it on some fresh crisp greens for the perfect salad. Enjoy & share if you enjoyed the experiment!


Tamara is an avid foodie and successful restaurateur. She has dedicated a large chunk of her life to researching healthy food recipes and diet plans, and also teaching people how to improve their eating habits. Using Eatomology, Tamara shares the very best diet plans, cookbooks, and more. Also, for those on a quest to improve their kitchen, Tamara shares some awesome and high-quality kitchen equipment recommendations as well as buying guides on her website.