Emulsifying agents are commonly used in foods to keep them mixed. You will commonly find carageenan, for instance, in ice cream to keep dairy fat from separating from the water and proteins, especially after repeated melting and refreezing.
The capacity for a compound to emulsify a solution varies from minimal to dramatic. Even some natural compounds in whole, unprocessed foods can exert modest emulsifying effects, such as acacia (acacia seeds), pectin (apples, peaches), and lecithin (egg yolks). The most powerful emulsification effects occur with synthetic or semi-synthetic emulsifying agents, such as polysorbate-80, carboxymethylcellulose, and methylcellulose. In one study, polysorbate-80 increased intestinal permeability 59-fold.
The human intestinal tract is covered by a protective mucous layer made of mucopolysaccharides that keeps undesirable organisms and other factors away from the intestinal lining itself. The mucous barrier is continually being regenerated, but is susceptible to emulsification, like adding soap or detergent to oil, resulting in its breakup. Emerging data suggest that synthetic emulsifiers, polysorbate-80 and methylcellulose, disrupt the mucous lining, allowing microorganisms to penetrate and exert changes via bowel flora that increase blood insulin, blood sugar, contribute to pre-diabetes, and increase inflammation, in addition to altering the composition of bowel flora present. This is believed to be an important part of the process operating in ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, for example, as well as diabetes and weight gain. An unintended consequence of the low-fat message was an increase in foods that contained synthetic emulsifying agents, such as low-fat yogurts, adding further to the blunders of the low-fat era.
In the Wheat Belly lifestyle, we opt for whole, single-ingredient foods as often as possible, thereby not containing synthetic emulsifiers. However, our reliance on almond, coconut, and some other processed non-dairy milks means we are being exposed to some of the natural, semi-synthetic, and even synthetic emulsifiers. We should therefore avoid brands containing synthetic emulsifiers. Alternatively, you can prepare almond or coconut milk yourself (see below) and avoid them altogether. The Wheat Belly effort to cultivate bowel flora by including 20 grams of prebiotic fibers per day also increases mucopolysaccharide production (via short chain fatty acids), reducing the impact of emulsifiers.
Stay tuned for more on this emerging and exciting new insight, as I predict that better understanding of the intestinal mucous layer is going to yield even greater capacity to heal intestinal tracts damaged by wheat/grains, antibiotics, chemical exposures, and prescription drugs.
Fresh Dairy-Free Homemade Coconut Milk
Making coconut milk by cracking open a whole coconut can be a lot of work. My good friend, Lori Arnold, PharmD, an integrative health practitioner in the Palm Springs, California area, came to the rescue and shared this simplified method to make your own coconut milk without use of emulsifying agents and without having to crack open a coconut. (For more of Lori’s recipes, as well as her unique views on prescription medication, see her website/blog, Heal Yourself Beautiful.)
Makes 3 cups
8 ounce package organic finely shredded coconut (unsweetened)
4 cups boiling, or very hot, filtered water
Nut milk bag* or cheesecloth
*Available online via Amazon and other retailers, as well as health food and specialty food stores
You will need a high-powered blender, like a Vitamix or equivalent that can sustain high heat.
Add the coconut and boiling/hot water to the blender. Blend well, about 1 minute on higher setting. Let set for another 2-3 minutes before straining.
Pour the contents of the blender through the nut milk bag into a large bowl or pitcher. Pull the strings of the bag and squeeze the remainder of the coconut milk out.
Refrigerate the coconut milk and use within 2-3 days.
TIP: Don’t throw away the coconut meal left in your nut bag! I put the fine coconut in a tight container and refrigerate to use in recipes. The coconut is deliciously moist and tastes fresher than boring bagged coconut. You can keep the coconut in your fridge for up to a week if tightly sealed. Use the coconut in smoothies.