Modified food starch, carrageenan and locust bean, guar, carob bean, xanthan gum and tara gums, along with a touch of sodium alginate, all worked in unison to provide the perfect texture to Aldi’s Belmont brand of Strawberry Cheesecake, launched in May 2010, according to Mintel’s GNPD. Such hydrocolloids are the “texture workhorses” of a broad range of foods, beverages and nutritional supplements found the world over.

According to Dennis Seisun, president, IMR International, a consulting and industrial market research company specializing in hydrocolloids (see, hydrocolloids are a group of ingredients with a wide range of beneficial properties. Many provide viscosity -- such as in beverages or in lower-calorie table syrups -- and some provide stability, such as is needed for emulsions or to help prevent water separation in frozen foods such as frozen doughs. Others work to suspend particles, a prime function of xanthan gum in salad dressings, while others form gels such as in milk or water-based desserts. Lastly, there is a growing trend for hydrocolloids to be used in nutritional products for their health benefits.

It is difficult to define “food hydrocolloids” precisely, says Seisun. Most hydrocolloids are carbohydrates; however, gelatine is a protein from animals or fish. Other sources include seaweed extracts (e.g., carrageenans and alginates), seed gums (e.g., locust bean and guar gum), fermentation products (such as xanthan, pullulan or gellan gums) and plant exudates (like Acacia gum and gum tragacanth). Starches and cellulose-based hydrocolloids (e.g., carboxymethyl cellulose [CMC]) are also obtained from plants.

Not only do their properties vary greatly, such as their ability to thicken, stability under various pHs or tendency to interact with other hydrocolloids and food components, their costs vary greatly as well. Starches, for example, tend to be on the low end of cost per kilo, while pure gellan gum, a fermentation product, is on the high end, says Seisun. Gellan gum is used in formulas, however, because it provides unique functionalities not obtainable from other ingredients.

Hydrocolloid Non-food Uses and Costs
The price and availability of hydrocolloids are greatly impacted by factors such as their sources, their processing and their popularity. Seisun provides a overview of hydrocolloids based on seaweed extracts as an example.

Alginates are still extremely high priced compared to traditional levels, says Seisun. They have gone from about to $9 per kilo in 1994 to close to $19 per kilo in 2010. That is a 5% per year annualized increase, and there is no sign of the prices coming down, although they may have reached a plateau. Controversy exists on why prices are so high. Some factors may be that relatively few suppliers exist, and there are some indications that the supply of raw materials used to make alginates is somewhat tight.Carrageenan, on the other hand, experienced a steep price increase the last 12-18 months but is now more reasonable, relays Seisun. The seaweed from which carrageenan is processed increased from $600 per ton to $3,000 then back down to $1,500. “One theory behind these changes was that prices were previously so low that it wasn’t worth the effort for farmers to harvest the seaweed,” offers Seisun. According to one speaker at IMR’s April 2010 conference in Berlin, this situation may be mirrored with locust bean gum, obtained from tree seeds. Prices are so low that harvesters are not bothering to harvest the raw materials.

Of the three seaweed-derived hydrocolloids, carageenan, alginates and agar, agar has been the most stable.

One opinion offered at the IMR conference was that the steadiness and even decline in some prices has been difficult to predict in the last 16 years and will continue to be so. For example, in the first quarter of 1994, xanthan gum was over $11 per kilo, but in the first quarter of 2010, it was under $6 per kilo. “That’s an annualized decline of 4% for 16 years or close to a 50% drop, and it doesn’t even take inflation into account,” says Seisun. If suppliers want to see better returns on their ingredients, investments and innovations are needed, he says.

Hydrocolloid use by non-food industries also influence price and availability. A recent report by CyperColloids looks at the global market for xanthan gum which is valued at $450 million. It notes that the market is divided into three primary categories; the food market at about $194 million, the oil drilling industry at some $152 million and the pharmaceutical/personal care market at approximately $58 million. (Toothpaste is the major application in this last category.) Chinese suppliers had aggressively pursued sales in the oil industry, but “the collapse of oil well drilling means there is an excess of xanthan gum on the market, pushing prices even lower.” This brings opportunities in areas where its use was previously too expensive, CyperColloids suggests. 

Increased Innovation
As with other ingredients, the use of hydrocolloid gums will change. Reasons why include ingredient suppliers’ innovation, formulators’ increasing understanding of how hydrocolloids can beneficially interact with each other, the ability of hydrocolloids to assist with changing manufacturing processes and their ability to provide health benefits.

For example, if “dietary fiber” is considered to be plant material indigestible by digestive enzymes of the humans, then most hydrocolloids could be classified as fiber. Indeed hydrocolloids such as pectin, resistant starches and maltodextrins, gum Arabic and hydrolyzed guar gum among others have been promoted for use by suppliers as dietary fibers and/or for their health benefits. Guar gum and gum Arabic are widely used as fiber sources, agrees Seisun, adding “nutraceutical properties are being investigated for pectin.”

No doubt there will be interesting and unexpected uses for this versatile category of ingredients in the future.

For further reading:
Search for the following phrases:
* - “Pectin Overpowers Plague”
* - “Essential Facts on Functional Fibers”
* - “Polymers Deliver on Texture and Health”
* - “Ingredient Technologies to Tackle Textures”

Other Resources
* Obesity: Politics to Products
* CP Kelco Opens New Facility
* Ingredient Technologies to Tackle Textures
* Ingredient Answers for Dairy and Confectionery Applications
* Ingredients That Gel

From the June 21, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition