The oldest known emulsifier is beeswax, which was used in skin lotion by the Greek physician Galen (131–201 AD). But it was not until the early 19th century that egg yolk became the first emulsifier used in food applications. The main emulsifying compound in egg yolk is phospholipid lecithin, which enables liquid oil to be dispersed in an acidified aqueous phase, such as in mayonnaise. Since the shelf life of products based on egg yolk is rather short, in the 1920s lecithin derived from soybean was introduced as a food emulsifier. However, it was probably the invention of margarine by the French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès in 1869 that contributed most to the use of food emulsifiers on an industrial scale.
Although the first mono-and diglycerides were synthesised by the Frenchman Marcelin Berthelot in 1853, it was only in the 1930s that commercial applications of these synthetic applications were discovered. Initially they were used in margarine alone. Before long their use was extended to cake and bread applications. In the second half of the 20th century, more synthetic emulsifiers were produced and used on large scale.
Current world production of food emulsifiers is estimated at around 400,000 metric tonnes, comprised of some twenty types. This rapid growth is driven by consumer demand for high quality, innovative products. Used in small amounts, emulsifiers can create many beneficial effects such as:
- Providing the ability for a stable, low-fat dressing without compromising its taste or shelf-life;
- Giving chewing gum its soft, chewy properties;
- Contributing a delightfully soft but not doughy crumb to bread;
Emulsifiers today are a crucial food ingredient, controlling and improving the texture of all kinds of food product.