Which ingredient class can help reduce sugar, and/or fat, enable plant-forward product alternatives, stabilize, gel and suspend—all without aid of a cape? Hydrocolloids—might be your choice because of their astonishing practical properties. Although hydrocolloids stem from a variety of sources, the basic chemical structure controls the properties.

Here, DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences helps food formulators review applications and selection factors. 

Hydrocolloids belong to a heterogeneous group of long-chain polymers (polysaccharides and proteins) characterized by their property of forming viscous dispersions and/or gels when combined with water. Their hydrophilic or water binding capabilities are due to the presence of a large number of hydroxyl (-OH) groups. This class of ingredients produces a dispersion, a state between a true solution and a suspension, similar to the properties of a colloid. This rather unique combination of properties led to this class of ingredients earning the moniker “hydrocolloids.” All hydrocolloids thicken, but only some can form gels. This means hydrocolloids are classified as either one of two types—thickening or gelling. (Source: Journal of Food Science and Technology)

A matter of texture

The primary purpose of a hydrocolloid within a food or beverage is to modify its rheology. More specifically, hydrocolloids can aid with thickening, gelation, emulsification, stabilization, and help control crystal growth of sugar and ice. Overall, this water-thickening property is common to all hydrocolloids and is the prime reason for their overall use. The extent of thickening varies with the type and nature of hydrocolloids, with a few giving low viscosities at a fairly high concentration but most of them giving high viscosities at concentration, below 1% (Glicksman 1982).

In general, relating to their overall rheological capabilities, hydrocolloids affect two basic properties: viscosity or flow, and texture, with each contributing to the product’s sensory characteristics. A product’s rheology can be linked to consumer acceptance, with hydrocolloids lending a more appealing appearance, mouthfeel and other textural features. 

Therefore, the proper selection and use of the appropriate hydrocolloid can mean the difference between a product’s success or failure in the marketplace. Correspondingly, this has led to the adoption of hydrocolloids within foods and beverages ranging from salad dressings and sauces to ice cream, desserts, cakes, candy and increasingly, within dairy alternatives.

Here's a rundown of the most common hydrocolloids used in food and beverage applications.

Thickening Hydrocolloids

•    Cellulose gum or CMC (carboxy-methylcellulose)

•    Guar gum

•    Gum arabic

•    Gum karaya

•    Gum tragacanth

•    Locust Bean Gum

•    Propylene glycol alginate

•    Starch

•    Tara gum

•    Xanthan

Cellulose gum

Cellulose gum, also known as CMC or carboxy-methylcellulose, is a food ingredient derived from cellulose, the most abundant organic compound on earth. Cellulose is found in the cell walls of all plants and is typically the biggest source of insoluble fiber in fruits and vegetables. Cellulose gum is often used in foods and beverages to tailor sensorial nuance, retain moisture, and stabilize recipes.

Recommended applications

•    Gluten-free

•    Flexitarian

•    Plant-based alternatives

•    Frozen desserts

Key benefits

•    Cost effective

•    Easy to process: cold and hot soluble

•    Crystal clear solutions 

•    Wide range of texture possibilities 

•    Highly purified grades

Gum arabic 

Gum Arabic is a natural gum from the hardened sap of various species of acacia trees. This hydrocolloid can act as a stabilizer or thickener and improves consistency and palatability. 

Recommended applications

•    Confectionery, chewing gum 

•    Jellies 

•    Glazes 

•    Beverage flavor emulsions 

•    Foam stabilizer in beer

Key benefits

•    Colorless 

•    Tasteless 

•    Odorless 

•    Water-soluble

Guar gum

Guar gum is a food ingredient derived from a type of legume called the guar bean. As a thickener, it provides thickening characteristics at relatively much lower usage levels than corn starch and most other ingredients. Guar is considered a dietary fiber in some regions, including the U.S., and several clinical trials suggest that guar consumption lowers LDL-cholesterol levels.

Recommended applications

•    Beverages

•    Dairy

•    Culinary

•    Meat

Key benefits

•    All natural

•    Consumer friendly

•    Easy to formulate with

•    Process tolerant

•    Cold and hot soluble

Gum tragacanth 

This hydrocolloid is derived from the dried sap of leguminous plants. It yields a viscous, odorless, tasteless, water-soluble polysaccharide mixture. Use for water binding, thickening, as a suspending agent or an aid in emulsification. 

Recommended applications

•    Salad dressings & sauces 

•    Bakery 

•    Fruit filings 

•    Cream fillings 

•    Citrus beverages 

Key benefits

•    Odorless 

•    Tasteless 

•    Naturally sourced

Gum karaya 

Gum karaya can apply to any of several vegetable gums obtained from tropical Asian trees—an acid polysaccharide—similar to tragacanth (often used as substitute). Acts as a stabilizer, water binder, emulsifier.  

Recommended applications 

•    Popsicles, ices, sherbets

•    Cheese spreads 

•    Meat processing

Key benefits

•    Natural source


Locust bean gum is an all-natural vegetable gum extract from the seeds of the carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) common to the Mediterranean. LBG provides strong synergies with other hydrocolloids. It creates body and a creamy texture. 

Recommended applications

•    Ice cream

•    Cream cheese

•    Infant formula

Key benefits

•    All natural

•    Consumer friendly

•    Reduces ice crystal growth

•    Easy to use

•    Neutral in taste and odor

•    Process tolerant


This hydrocolloid classifies as a complex polysaccharide made up of units of glucose—approximately one-fourth amylose and three-fourths amylopectin. It is a tasteless, white amorphous powder or granule.

Recommended applications

•    Thickening agent for foods

Key benefits

•    Tasteless

•    Label friendly

Tara gum

Ground from the endosperm of the seeds from a small leguminous tree, this natural thickener is a viscous soluble fiber that works as a stabilizer and film former in food and beverages. It’s an odorless white to white-yellow powder.

Recommended applications

•    Ice cream

•    Juice

•    Soft drinks

•    Jams/jellies

•    Candy

•    Cheese

•    Sauces/condiments

Key benefits

•    Natural additive

•    Similar thickening effects to guar and LBG

•    Gel former in combination with certain hydrocolloids

•    Stabilizer

Xanthan gum 

This is a polysaccharide gum produced by fermentation, with a broad array of uses in formulation including as a natural thickener, stabilizer, suspending agent, emulsifier, binder, bodying agent, extender and foam enhancer/stabilizer.

Recommended applications

•    Baked goods 

•    Beverages 

•    Desserts 

•    Gravies 

•    Jams 

•    Milk products 

•    Poultry 

•    Salad dressings, sauces 

•    Stews 

Key benefits

•    Excellent thickener at low concentration

•    Outstanding suspension agent (solids, oil droplets, herbs, etc.)

•    High synergy with galactomannans

•    Application-oriented product range with guaranteed, higher and constant performance

•    Dosage and cost saving opportunities

•    Available in various grades to fulfill specific hydration, dispersion and transparency requirements

Gelling Hydrocolloids

•    Agar

•    Alginate 

•    Carrageenan

•    Gellan

•    HPMC

•    MCC

•    Pectin


Agar is a polysaccharide mixture derived from red algae. It is white to pale yellow in color, generally odorless, soluble in boiling water and insoluble in cold water. 

Recommended applications

•    Stabilizer

•    Emulsifier

•    Thickener

•    Anti-staling in baking

•    Confections

•    Meat and poultry

•    Desserts

•    Beverages

•    Frostings

Key benefits

•    Odorless

•    Humectant

•    Soluble in boiling water

•    Insoluble in cold water


It’s a natural hydrocolloid extracted from brown seaweed. Alginate provides gelling, thickening and film-forming properties for a number of food and non-food applications. The seaweeds used to produce alginate are sustainable, using very little land and requiring no fertilizers or irrigation. It is considered a dietary fiber in some regions, including the U.S. Alginate is also shown to have health benefits in weight management and in satisfying hunger.

Recommended applications:

•    Ice cream

•    Bakery fillings/custards

•    Low-fat spreads

•    Restructured meat and vegetables 

Key benefits

•    Natural

•    Versatile

•    Process flexible

•    Labeling


Carrageenan is one of the major components of edible red seaweed, providing structure, gelation and viscosity for a variety of food applications including organic brands, infant and toddler formula, and a variety of dairy foods and beverages.  The cultivation of carrageenan-producing seaweeds is also sustainable, preserving the health and biodiversity of the ocean. 

Recommended applications:

•    Ice cream & frozen products

•    RTE dairy desserts

•    Milk-based beverages

•    Infant & toddler formula

•    Yogurt fruit preps

•    Processed cheese

•    Confectionery

Key benefits

•    Value added

•    Robust stabilizer

•    Process flexibility

•    Unique performance in dairy systems

•    Broad solution provider 

Gellan gum

Gellan gum is one of the newest ingredients in foods and beverages and is made through fermentation using Sphingomonas elodea, a single-cell organism found on lily pads. 

Recommended applications

•    Dairy and non-dairy foods and beverages

Key benefits

•    Sustainable


Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose is a white powder that swells in water, producing a clear to opalescent viscous solution. Used as a thickener, stabilizer, emulsifier and film former, HPMC also serves as a fat barrier and suspending agent in food products, such as salad dressings. 

Recommended applications

•    Baked goods

•    Ice cream

•    Dressings & sauces

•    Breadings & coatings

Key benefits

•    Improves emulsions/suspensions

•    Viscosity control agent

•    Lubricant

•    Dispersant

•    Improves binding strength

•    Gels when heated; thickens when cooled


Cellulose gel, also known as microcrystalline cellulose or MCC, is a food ingredient consisting of small particles of purified cellulose, the most abundant organic compound on earth. Cellulose is found in the cell walls of all plants and is typically the biggest source of insoluble fiber in fruits and vegetables. In certain applications, cellulose gel simultaneously keeps nutrients and other ingredients from sticking to each other or settling at the bottom and prevents separation of protein and water.

Considered a dietary fiber in some regions, including the U.S., cellulose gel can be used in a variety of food and beverage applications, including plant-based recipes, to add fiber and reduce calorie content while maintaining a satisfying, creamy experience. Clinical trials on cellulose gel consumption have pointed to health benefits in gastrointestinal and cardiovascular health.

Recommended applications

•    Nutritional beverages, fruit beverages, soft drinks

•    Frozen desserts, whipped toppings, 

•    Chocolate milk

•    Cheese

•    Dressings, sauces, dips, soups 

•    Plant-based food and beverages

Key benefits

•    Provides stabilization

•    Improves texture

•    Enables fat reduction


A food gum, used as a thickener, stabilizer, emulsifier and gellant.  Methylcellulose is an odorless and tasteless off-white powder. It also has body, bulking, binding and film forming characteristics. 

Recommended applications 

•    Baked goods

•    Pie fillings

•    Prepared foods

•    Microwaveable baked goods

•    Reduced fat products

•    Tortillas

•    Sauces/gravies

Key benefits

•    Water soluble 

•    Firm gel structure

•    Bodying agent

•    Bulking agent

•    Lubricity aid

•    Improves dough release

•    Gels when heated; thickens when cooled


Pectin is one of the most consumer-friendly food ingredients used today. Many consumers are familiar with pectin because of its long history of use in homemade fruit preserves. Pectin also ranks high from a sustainability standpoint, as most pectin is produced from the peels of citrus fruits used for making juice. In addition to its traditional use in fruit preparations and sugar confections, pectin improves the nutritional and taste profiles of beverages and yogurts.

Pectin is a natural hydrocolloid present in all plants and is considered a dietary fiber in the U.S. and other regions, shown in clinical trials to provide benefits in cardiovascular health and other important areas.

Recommended applications

•    Yogurt/fruit preps

•    Beverages

•    Jams, jellies, fruit spreads, fruit leathers

•    Bakery fillings, glazes, sauces, toppings

•    Confections

Key benefits

•    Consumer friendly

•    Value added

•    Process flexible

•    Reduces rework

•    Simplify label

Which hydrocolloid to Use

As illustrated, there are many different hydrocolloids with a dizzying number of properties. So how do you determine which is best to use when? 

This is an oft-asked question with no easy answer. If anything, the answer is—it depends on a number of factors. These factors include, but are not limited to: 

•    formulation 

•    process restrictions

•    desired functionality

•    desired label declaration

•    ease of use

•    cost-in-use  

Some hydrocolloids are better suited to certain applications vs. others because of specific interactions with other ingredients or restrictions due to hot or cold processes. The key is understanding the environment and asking questions up front, so the best recommendation can be made.

Choosing a hydrocolloid depends a lot on the functionality needed in the finished product. Some hydrocolloids interact with other ingredients in the formulation. For example, carrageenan is very reactive with dairy proteins, whereas pectin provides better protein stability in acidic environments. Some hydrocolloids will stabilize protein, others will not. Some will provide heat stability, and others will not. Some are surface active and are best suited for use in whipped/aerated products. Knowing your formulation and processing conditions are critical in choosing the ideal hydrocolloid or combination of hydrocolloids. 

Formulation environment and process are key in selecting a hydrocolloid. Most hydrocolloids will require some element of shear and many require heat for good dispersion and activation. Even then, the resulting functionality could be very different, so the easiest hydrocolloid to use in a process is not always the best choice. Cost, availability, label acceptance (naturally derived), and process tolerance are other considerations.

Hydrocolloid cost can vary greatly. Different supply factors impact hydrocolloid cost—cultivated or wild harvested; limited or controlled supply; environmental conditions impacting growing seasons. However, many times higher-cost hydrocolloids are used at very low use levels. This means the focus on hydrocolloid selection should be on cost-in-use rather than cost-per-kilo or -pound.

As discussed, formulation and process are key in determining which hydrocolloid to use for a particular application. Answering a few key questions can help narrow the list of suitable hydrocolloids. From there, it’s really just familiarity with the various functionalities and understanding what might work best. Even then, evaluations are necessary to ensure the functionality needed is delivered over the shelf life of the product.

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