Surfactants in the Food Industry

Published: 6 Aug 2001
By Girish Solanki
Surface active agents or Surfactants, as they are commonly known, are multi-functional chemical entities that have a wide range of applications in household detergents, personal care products and as vital components in a multitude of industrial and institutional sectors. The food industry also comprises one of the largest end users for surfactants but the kind and quantity of surfactants that can be used are limited by considerations of contamination and potential toxicity. Besides being used as a part of cleaning formulations in the food industry, surfactants also find more direct use as emulsifiers in food formulations and to a lesser extent, as fat substitutes. There are several kinds of surfactants in use, however ionics (anionics, cationics, amphoterics) and non-ionics dominate the market. In recent years the traditional stronghold of anionic surfactants in several sectors has considerably weakened and non-ionics have seen resurgence. However, non-ionics have traditionally comprised the most common type of surfactants used in the food industry (food emulsifiers). They commonly include mono- and di-glycerides, derivatives such as acetylated, succinylated and diacetylated tartaric esters of distilled monoglycerides, lactylated esters, sorbitan esters, polysorbates, propylene glycol esters, sucrose esters and polyglycerol esters among others.
Emulsifiers are additives that allow normally immiscible liquids such as oil and water to form a stable mixture, including preventing phase separation. They are widely used in the food industry to perform several functions as listed in the table below. Within the food industry, bread and bakeries are the two segments utilizing the largest volume of surfactants.

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