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What Exactly Are Food Stabilizers And Are They Bad For Us?

March 20, 2024

In trying to accomplish all of our daily to-do’s, we sometimes offload some of the heavy lifting in the kitchen by leaning on packaged foods. In doing that, we’ve noticed a lot of gums, starches, and other items on ingredient lists. There’s guar gum in our favorite hummus, locust bean gum in our almond milk, and cornstarch in our gluten-free bread. We know these are food stabilizers — but what do they do, and are they safe to eat? We tapped our network of food scientists and nutritionists to get the answers. 

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Food stabilizers 101

Simply put, stabilizers are a type of additive that helps maintain a food’s texture. They don’t affect foods’ taste; instead, stabilizers can preserve a product’s structure which, in turn, can extend its shelf life. They can make food appear freshly made, even if it’s been sitting on the shelf for weeks. Some common food stabilizers you’ll see on labels include guar gum, gelatine, locust bean gum, xanthan gum, starches, and pectin. 

Stabilizers generally fall into two categories: thickeners and emulsifiers, according to Eric Decker, professor and head of the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Thickeners are generally flours, starches (such as cornstarch, potato starch, and arrowroot) or gums (like xanthan gum). These ingredients help increase viscosity, decrease crystallization, and slow down the settlement of non-water soluble components. That’s why products like chocolate milk have little to no settlement at the bottom and why store-bought ice cream has a creamy texture with little to no iciness, Decker explains. 

Emulsifiers, on the other hand, disperse oil and water into small droplets to create a homogenous liquid. Decker says that emulsifiers can come from natural sources (such as proteins in milk and lecithins in eggs) or synthetic components (like polysorbates). You’ll often see emulsifiers in products like salad dressing or mayonnaise. 

Related: What Are ‘Natural Flavors’ and Are They Actually Natural? 

Are food stabilizers bad for us?

The FDA approves many stabilizers, so technically they’re safe to eat. But research suggests that some thickeners and emulsifiers may be detrimental, potentially elevating the risk of cancer. The top culprit: carrageenan, a thickener made from red seaweed that’s often used as a vegan form of gelatin. Some studies have found that carrageenan could be harmful to the gut and increase the risk of insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes, notes functional medicine dietitian Kaytee Hadley. Xanthan gum, a thickener found in many foods such as salad dressing, gluten-free baked goods, and sauces, can cause digestive issues for some people (though recent research shows no safety concerns).  

On the other hand, there are some food stabilizers that may offer health benefits, notes dietitian Brittnee Cannon. Recent research suggests that pectin, inulin, and resistant starch stabilizers might offer improved digestive health, lowered cholesterol levels, reduced risk of obesity, increased feelings of fullness and reduced hunger, and better calcium absorption, she says.

Should I avoid food stabilizers?

At the end of the day, like other ingredients, stabilizers may be fine for some people and not for others. “Depending on where you are with your health, some people may need to take more caution to avoid certain food stabilizers than others,” Cannon says. 

Hadley adds that we still need more research on humans to fully understand which stabilizers could be harmful and in what amount. In the meantime, it’s best to listen to your gut. Check in with your body and see how you feel after eating foods with stabilizers in them; you can even try to stick to one kind of stabilizer, then avoid it, and compare your reaction. 

Read next: Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to 32 Harmful Health Effects, Study Shows

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