Bakers have many emulsifiers at their fingertips from conventional to clean label alternatives, and each one performs different functions and has different storage and usage needs to optimally achieve those functions. Choosing an emulsifier based on what it does may seem straightforward, but that would be a misstep. Emulsifiers are impacted by other ingredients in the formulation as well as the processing steps throughout production. Even something like ingredient storage and the skill level of a bakery’s operators may factor into the decision. 

“Choosing the right emulsifier solution involves several factors,” explained Mark Zielonka, national R&D product specialist, BreadPartners. “The nature of the finished product, including its shelf life, packaging and distribution method, along with the capability of the production equipment should be considered. For instance, DATEM is preferred for producing crispier breads and is particularly suitable for frozen doughs due to its superior dough tolerance. On the other hand, mono- and diglycerides are excellent for producing a soft texture in sweet dough used for brioche, challah and Hispanic pan dulce.”

While bakers should not ignore these external factors when choosing an emulsifier, a good place to start is the actual function the dough requires. 

“Deciding on the end goal is the first step,” said Matt Keyser, Northeastern sales, Brolite Products. “Does the product need freshness, strength, pull, volume, improved crust or crumb characteristics? Suppliers and blend manufacturers will typically help a baker with matching the emulsifiers to the requirements.” 

Most emulsifiers are divided into two general categories that their functions fall under: dough strengthening or crumb softening. Some of the solutions are versatile and can perform both but to varying degrees, Mr. Lindhorst pointed out, so bakers must understand the function being performed in the particular product. 

Common emulsifiers for bread baking include DATEM, mono- and diglycerides, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate (SSL) and calcium stearoyl-2-lactylate (CSL), lecithin and polysorbates. DATEM provides strength to the gluten network, which improves the dough’s resistance and stability during processing. As Mr. Zielonka pointed out, it is well-suited to frozen doughs and crispier breads, which need a high dough tolerance. 

 Mono- and diglycerides also strengthen the dough while improving loaf volume and crumb softness. These work well in sweeter doughs that require a soft and tender texture, like brioche and challah. 

SSL and CSL are versatile emulsifiers, both softening the crumb and strengthening the dough. This improves dough mixing and gas retention, resulting in better volume and crumb structure. Polysorbates improve dough strength, crumb structure and extend shelf life. 

If a baker’s customer base or end consumer requires a clean label, that can potentially rule out these standard options. Lecithin, on the other hand, is considered label-friendly as it’s sourced from soy or sunflower. However, lecithin often must be paired with enzymes and oxidizing agents to reach its full potential in dough conditioning, improving crumb structure and extending shelf life.   

“Lecithin can be very functional in yeast-raised products for both softening and strengthening, but it must be used in combination with a phospholipase/glycolipase enzyme system to achieve these results,” explained Troy Boutte, PhD, vice president of innovation, AB Mauri North America. 

While labeling is an important part of choosing the right emulsifier, John Nedderson, principal designer for bakery and fats and oils group, IFF, encouraged bakers to look beyond clean label and consider allergens and regulatory limitations as well. DATEM, for example, is Generally Recognized as Safe in the United States and has few limited uses in food. SSL on the other hand is regulated by 21 CFR 172.846 and does come with use limitations that bakers need to know. 

“Some emulsifiers, like lecithin, are extracted from soybean or sunflower oil,” Mr. Nedderson said. “However, soy lecithin is considered an allergen and would need to be labeled as such. Sunflower lecithin doesn’t carry the allergen label but is in much tighter supply.”

If bakers choose the wrong emulsifier, they run the risk of a negative impact on final product quality. 

“The wrong emulsifier can result in the dough not developing properly or the baked good lacking in desired texture or shelf life,” Mr. Zielonka said. 

Beyond the functionality being provided in a formulation, Sherrill Cropper, PhD, new product development lab manager, Lesaffre, noted that bakers need to look at their needs more holistically. She encouraged bakers to consider product characteristics like final volume as well as packaging, distribution timeframe and how the finished product will be stored: at ambient temperature or frozen. Shelf life needs will also play a role in the final decision.

“People don’t always take a step back to consider the holistic implications of choosing an emulsifier,” she said. “Labor, storage and consumer perception all need to be considered alongside formulation needs. Some traditional emulsifiers are harder to work with because they can be sticky and difficult to scale, need to be stored properly or sometimes have off flavors that require taste masking.”

Overall, taking the time to thoroughly investigate emulsifier options will be worth it in the long run. 

“The right emulsifier will also save resources both directly and indirectly, such as making production less labor-intensive or by making the product more consistent, which will help reduce the amount of product that is thrown away due to not meeting desired product specifications,” Dr. Cropper explained.

This article is an excerpt from the July 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Emulsifiers, click here.