Would you want to eat “soapy” food? Well, you might be doing that if you eat peanut butter, ice cream, sherbet, mayonnaise, salad dressing, icing, pudding, candy, cottage cheese or cream cheese.

Depending on how they are manufactured, each of these foods may contain actual detergent.

It’s in many everyday foods, and besides being disgusting to think about eating, it could be setting the stage for digestive ills, cardiovascular troubles and weight gain.


There’s growing evidence that certain particular ingredients in many processed foods may interfere with digestion, setting the stage for digestive illnesses, cardiovascular risk and weight gain. They’re called emulsifiers—a kind of detergent that’s added to improve texture and prolong shelf life. When food manufacturers remove fat from foods, they often add emulsifiers to create a smoother product.

The latest evidence: Two of the most common emulsifiers in our food supply—carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80—can alter beneficial gut bacteria in nasty ways. We already reported on an earlier study that found that these compounds change the mucous membrane of the gut so that healthy bacteria leak out, triggering inflammation. This inflammation starts a chain reaction that could lead to diseases such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease—as well as metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes and heart disease.

Now in a new study, the same researchers at Georgia State University have found that the damage begins even before bacteria leak out of the gut. Using lab equipment that simulates the human gut, researchers added the two emulsifiers to the human gut bacteria. Markers for inflammation increased significantly.

The researchers then implanted the altered gut bacteria into gut-bacteria–free mice. Result: The mice developed intestinal inflammation and showed signs of metabolic syndrome.


It’s still early research, to be sure—human studies are planned—and there’s no way to know yet how important a role these ingredients actually play in these common diseases.

It’s not known whether other emulsifiers have similar negative effects. However, carrageenan, a gum that is also commonly used as an emulsifier, has been linked in other animal studies to gut inflammation.

But the research is enough to make us read labels pretty carefully—at least for a start. For instance, these two additives, which are labeled as safe for food by the FDA, go by a variety of names…

  • Carboxymethylcellulose is also known as cellulose gum, carboxymethyl cellulose, sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, CMC, modified cellulose and cellulose gel.
  • Polysorbate 80 is also known as polyoxythylene sorbitan mono-oleate and Tween 80.

However, even careful label reading can only take you so far, since possible gut-harming emulsifiers lurk in many processed foods. The easiest way to play it safe? Choose minimally processed foods that contain only ingredients you recognize. You can find ice cream that contains just cream, milk and sugar, for example. And when it comes to peanut butter, whether smooth or crunchy, look for those that contain just peanuts, or peanuts and salt.