Looking at the position fibers and gums are playing in everyday foods and beverages reveals product developers paying closer attention to these key ingredients for their dual functions as both texturants and nutraceuticals. This has become especially evident where those two functions merge—in plant-based products designed to mimic meat and dairy.
Collectively falling under the title hydrocolloids, gums and fibers are derived from land and sea plants, animals, and microbial sources. They provide functionality including thickening, emulsifying, and water retention. “While traditional methods like extraction are still in place, many next-generation gums and starches are derived from different sources,” notes Anne-marie Ramo, a consulting research and development chef. “These sources include bacterial and microbial fermentation, and upcycled agricultural and manufacturing byproducts.
Gellan gum is an example of a gum created through fermentation, specifically by the Sphingomonas elodea bacterium. The polysaccharide provides smooth viscosity, and aids in particulate suspension in fluid formulations, such as fruit and vegetable drinks and salad dressings. It is prized for lending a smooth mouthfeel and pleasant texture to dairy and plant-based dairy beverages as well.
Available in two forms, gellan also is highly popular for use in sweets and similar confections. Low-acyl gellan gum creates firm, non-elastic, brittle gels, while high-acyl gellan creates soft, highly elastic gels.
Gum acacia is an historical favorite for its function in formulations that has experienced renewed attention for health benefits. While decades of studies have supported its cholesterol-balancing capacity, studies in the past five years have pointed to acacia’s ability to help in reducing body fat, and a randomized controlled trial published earlier this year found acacia to help relieve symptoms of dry mouth and throat soreness.
Acacia blends are gaining more ground as processors needing to fine-tune better-for-you products that rely heavily on texture. Highly competitive products like analogs of meat and poultry, or dairy-free “cream” sauces and dressings are primary applications for such blends. Acacia works especially well at helping to preserve freeze/thaw integrity in both aggregations (like ground or shredded mock meats), and in viscous liquids like dressings, sauces, and gravy. Acacia blends also support particle suspension, increase fluid thickness, and prevent component separation.
Tapioca is another classic revival. Although not a high-fiber plant, the unmodified native starch of the cassava root is prized for its fiber-like ability to act as a highly effective thickener, filler, binder and stabilizer. It works especially well as a texturizer in baked goods, extruded products, frozen items, soups, and sauces. Organic native tapioca starch offers non-GMO clean-label versatility perfect for allergen-free/grain-free formulations.
With the Grain
Fibers and gums from plants remain the most typical sources found in food and beverage production. However, until recently, many were not able to compete on the clean-label playing field. This was especially true of fibers from corn, still a largely GMO crop in the US. In recent years, however, organic and non-GMO corn crops have been cultivated to fill the need.
Recently, one supplier took it an extra step, launching a new, multifunctional corn fiber that not only is non-GMO and provides a clean label, it’s derived from upcycled sources. Through conserving the natural interplay between cellulose and hemicelluloses within corn bran, the new fiber boasts superior water-holding capacity—up to 30X its weight—plus, once hydrated, its viscous characteristics add mouthfeel and texture to dairy and other applications.
It even can help replace desirable mouthfeel in lower fat meat products when used as a binder and extender. It performs in the same manner for plant-based meat alternatives, while enhancing yield and juiciness through its ability to hold both oil and water within the protein matrix.
A similar fiber is available derived from non-GMO oats. The fiber is produced through the same conservative process and upcycling to preserve the natural functionality within oat hull residues. Although the water-holding capability is only about 40% that of the aforementioned new corn fiber, it retains all the nutritional benefits of oat fiber. It has proven to be especially effective at controlling moisture within bakery and snack applications.
Fiber from the stems of white button mushrooms brings a third function to the fiber and gum table. In addition to texture attributes, the flavorless, colorless fiber was discovered to act as a natural preservative, improving shelf life by protecting against spoilage. It can be readily incorporated into meat analogs, plant-based dairy replacers, sauces, and salad dressings.
The South American chia seed has become a popular ingredient for its high protein and omega oils. Lately, processors have taken notice of its functional fiber capacity. Chia fiber can replace up to 25% of wheat flour in bread, muffin, cookie, cake, and scone formulas without impacting the rest of the recipe.
Although well-known in the Middle East and Africa, sago—produced from the trunk of the true sago palm (Metroxylon sagu)—is being recognized on this side of the world as a an ideal clean-label, gluten-free thickener. It imparts a particularly smooth mouthfeel and easy viscosity. And from further east, lotus root is a recognized source of fiber and starch that blend well with hydrocolloids such as xanthan, carrageenan, gum Arabic, and guar gum to create moist marshmallow-style structures in confectionery products.
Plants, especially tropical plants, will continue to be plumbed for sources of unique functional fibers. Previously reported sources such as jackfruit, mango seed, green bananas (high in resistant starch), various tubers, and other sustainable plants are rich in natural gums and fibers waiting to be brought into the mainstream of food ingredients.
David Feder, Executive Editor–Technical, has been a food and nutrition journalist for more than 30 years. A former professional chef, he became a registered dietitian while completing research and coursework toward a PhD in nutrition biochemistry at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com.