Perhaps unsurprisingly, things were different 100 years ago. Today, there’s a widespread (no pun intended) push to cut down fats in the foods we eat, to counter the adverse effects of modern, more sedentary lifestyles. Our forefathers, however, were highly active, and needed high-density energy sources. Fat, therefore, particularly in compact, concentrated forms, was highly desirable. And for the working class of the time, margarine stepped in to provide exactly that—and at a low cost.
By the 1900s, margarine production had become a big business. Early margarines, however, had their drawbacks. For one thing, they were very unstable, tasting terrible within three weeks of production. A similar lack of self-control marked their use in food production, spitting wildly and leaving undesirable after-tastes.
One man whose achievements have had a profound effect on margarine production was a Danish inventor and businessman by the name of Einar Schou. In 1908, he retired from the UK margarine business as a wealthy man, but his inventive mind had yet to make its most important contribution to the food industry. Seven years later, Mr Schou became the inventor of the modern commercial emulsifier, and its first patent holder.
The First Controllable Emulsifier
Mr Schou’s emulsifier, known as Palsgaard Emulsion Oil (PEO), was particularly welcome because it dramatically changed the process of producing margarine. Virtually from one day to the next, manufacturers could achieve good, strong emulsions with better stability. They could win control over their margarines, ensuring consistent results. And they could get by pretty well even if they didn’t have the most up-to- date production equipment.
With PEO, manufacturers had obtained an entirely new understanding of what was going on at a chemistry and functional level, i.e. the different raw materials and emulsion types that could be brought into recipe development—all which depend on what the margarine would be used for.
In the 1970s for example, the idea was to reduce up to half of the calories in margarine, and resulted in around one in five production runs failing and at tremendous cost to manufacturers. Today as then, it’s not hard to make a good emulsion, but it has become easier to balance between stability and instability without having to reject batches— ‘failed’ runs are still useful and can still be sold. Of course, such products can be reprocessed, but as with most things, it is better to get it right the first time.
Modern, high-performing emulsifiers operate on many different levels. They also affect shelf-life of puff pastry. More water can be incorporated in the pastry margarine, resulting in a better mouthfeel of the less-fatty puff pastry, just as taste can be improved—all at the same time.
New product development, in particular, can now be finely tuned, balancing on the knife edge between stability and instability.
One of the key focus areas for emulsifier manufacturers and their margarine customers is drop size—a major influencer of stability. Different emulsifier doses produce different drop sizes. If you add more salt to the margarine, for example, large drop sizes will result in a more intense taste. Achieving smaller droplets, without changing the original salt content, will give a less intense salty taste.
Puff pastry, on the other hand, always requires strong emulsions with a small drop size, but emulsifiers can also provide other benefits, such as an emulsifying film between the dough layers, improving plasticity of the margarine and ensuring faster crystallisation during production. At the same time, a more moist mouthfeel is likely to result, along with good expansion and more uniform layer structure in the baked pastry— even as the product’s fat content is being reduced.
Just how powerful can today’s emulsifiers be? In fact, whether the goal is to remove lecithin, GMO, reduce e-numbers or fats, including these emulsifiers in the recipe can have a significant impact.
Of course, emulsifier type and dosage are just two of many parameters that can be adjusted when designing or refining a product. Increasing stability, for example, may mean the product can handle high temperatures, but it won’t provide the same flavour release as a less stable emulsion. So, choices still need to be made, but today’s emulsifiers certainly enhance the ability to manipulate the parameters and find a much more workable balance than was possible in the past.
A processed food manufacturer needs to keep on its toes. In the 1960s, animal fats in food products brought concerns about high cholesterol levels. A change followed to vegetable fat, but that raised trans fatty acids as an issue. And today, the environment and wildlife have also come into focus.
With sustainability quickly becoming more important to a growing number of manufacturers to protect their brands—and as part of their own pride in their work— emulsifier suppliers are increasingly required to provide new, sustainable versions of their products.
One avenue is to move away from palm-based products. But this is not without its complications. Palm-free alternatives, such as sunflower or rapeseed, have different melting points and fatty acid compositions, which are likely to deliver different functionalities than that of palm-based products. By using sustainable palm oil, on the other hand, manufacturers can use oils with well-known functionalities and production processes, simultaneously satisfying consumer demands for health and environmental protection.
Here the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) provides a useful yardstick for emulsifier manufacturers and their customers. The RSPO was founded to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil, bringing social and environmental NGOs together with all sectors of the palm oil industry. Under the RSPO’s structure, palm oil can be processed or traded through one of four supply chain models: Identity Preserved, Segregation (SG), Mass Balance (MB) or Book and Claim.
Producers like Palsgaard have wasted no time in adopting these models. And in fact, the Danish company already provides all of its vegetable-based emulsifiers as Segregated—the RSPO’s most stringent level. Already now, therefore, food manufacturers can replace conventional palm oil with segregated palm oil without difficulty. It’s a sharp contrast to the many hours of complex R&D work and test productions required to create sunflower- or rapeseed based products with the same functionality as the original, palm-based versions.
What’s Next For Emulsifiers?
In decades to come, inventions like margarine will be needed to get more out of our foods, using a widening variety of raw ingredients. And emulsifiers will be needed to make much of it possible. So, what is the future for emulsifiers?
“There’s a lot going on,” says Anders Mølbak Jensen, global product & application manager at Palsgaard. “Of course, our R&D scientists try to stay ahead of the trends in the market, such as Segregated emulsifiers. But, for example, we are also working on emulsifiers with different fatty acid combinations, and emulsifiers in liquid form that you don’t have to melt before using.”
At a fundamental level, emulsifier technology is still in its infancy. In fact, there is much more to be discovered— particularly around how emulsifiers work at a molecular level. Knowing more about this will enable scientists to gain even better control over emulsifier design and increase their efficiency, too.
Claus Hviid Christensen, newly appointed CEO of Palsgaard’s sister company Nexus A/S, which continuously researches, develops and refines emulsifier formulations, explains: “While each emulsifier has a single E number, it is composed of many different chemical substances. And we are only now exploring what each of these different molecules actually contributes to emulsifier functionality. Once we understand which molecules are key, our customers can dose fewer additives and less of them into their recipes.”
Such new discoveries will enable emulsifier manufacturers to move from relying on trial and error-based experimentation to a more knowledge-driven approach that is expected to open new doors for emulsifiers in a wide range of applications.
“For example, we have recently applied emulsifiers to polymers for food packaging—providing anti-fogging and anti-static functionalities—and we are busy developing this along with other, entirely new business segments,” says Mr Christensen. “The challenge for us, you might say, is that we’re now seeing just how many potential applications there are for our emulsifier technology, and we need to be careful to move into each field with the right solutions and the right timing.”
There are still other, more basic, ways to innovate, too. In more than two decades of industry experience, Mr Jensen has often seen existing emulsifiers turned to new applications— sometimes in surprising ways.
“When you invent new emulsifiers for a specific application, you sometimes realise they can also be used for something quite different. The ability to produce lowfat Danish pastries, for example, came from one of our R&D projects aimed at producing fat-reduced chocolate,” he said.