Call in the food fixers

Consumers navigating the aisles of their local supermarket are routinely confronted with food labels shouting what is not in the product: fat, sugar, gluten. This article takes a look at some of the precisely tailored combination of other ingredients is called upon to replace them, at how ingredient suppliers are playing a big role in helping customers balance health claims, good taste, and consumers’ desire for “natural” foods. It is an intriguing look into the world of the food scientist.

THE ‘FREE FROM’ OR ‘NO X’ PRODUCT claims appear from one end of the store to the other on beverages, salad dressings, sauces, cookies, and even bread. What shoppers may not know is that whenever fats, sugars, or gluten are taken out, a precisely tailored combination of other ingredients is called upon to replace them. These ingredients help food scientists make “light” or “-free” versions of products taste as close to the original version as possible.

Usually, it is texture they are looking to replicate. Take Hidden Valley ranch salad dressing: The light version of the iconic brand contains 40% fewer calories and 50% less fat than the regular dressing. The label additionally promises “Betcha can’t tell it’s light!” The reason it might be hard to tell is that the ingredients include modified food starch, carrageenan, and xanthan gum, rather than oil and sour cream.

“We have to add ingredients to build up the viscosity and give that creamy mouth feel,” says HV Food Products food scientist Edith Neta. “To get the right viscosity, we have to use more than one texturizing ingredient—they have synergistic activity.” She explains that each input has different properties. For example, starch thickens products. In contrast, “With xanthan gum, when you shake the bottle, the dressing flows. But when it’s on the salad it will cling to the lettuce. It’s also good for dipping; it helps the dressing stay on your carrot.”

To make sure consumers won’t miss what’s missing, food makers can choose from a long list of texture-improving additives and replacements—from agar to xanthan gum—and they normally choose several. The functional ingredients may come from specialty chemical companies or from firms devoted to food ingredients.

Yet if names like modified food starch and carrageenan sound familiar, it’s because no new texture additives have entered the market for decades. “Research and development has focused more on differentiation than on totally new products,” says Dennis Seisun, owner of the hydrocolloid consulting firm IMR International. “It would be way too expensive to get full approval for a brand-new product.” Instead, Seisun explains, ingredient firms create their “new” products by developing new properties from existing sources.

Although many ingredients are made with the help of chemistry, food makers are facing a consumer backlash against ones that appear to be chemically altered. Similarly, long, complicated lists of ingredients are falling out of favour. Ingredient suppliers are playing a big role in helping customers balance health claims, good taste, and consumers’ desire for “natural” foods.

The majority of textural replacement ingredients fall into a category of products called hydrocolloids, named for their ability to hold on to, and control the migration of, water in foods and beverages. The global market for hydrocolloids used in food was worth $5.8 billion in 2010, Seisun estimates. Close to half of that value was claimed by two hydrocolloids: starches and gelatin.

The other half of the market consisted of carrageenan and alginates, both derived from seaweed; cellulose, derived from tree pulp and cotton; other plant-derived substances such as pectin and guar gum; and xanthan gum from bacterial fermentation.

Seisun estimates that 1.4 million tons of hydrocolloids was consumed worldwide in 2010. Of that amount, 73% was starch. Asia in general, and China in particular, is a growing market for hydrocolloids, Seisun says, but it is difficult to get information on ingredients made in China for domestic consumption.

The market for hydrocolloids as a whole has a growth rate of nearly 3% a year, but rates for specific hydrocolloids vary from 1.5 to 2.0% for starch and gelatin to 5.5 to 6.0% for xanthan, pectin, and specialized forms of cellulose. Ingredients such as xanthan and carrageenan are more potent than the bulky starches and gelatins and command correspondingly higher prices.

Modifying food texture is an important application and area of research at ingredient firm National Starch, part of Corn Products International. The company provides starches derived from corn, potatoes, and tapioca. It also has introduced new texture systems that add precise creaminess and cling. “We have dial-in texture capability,” boasts Suzanne Mutz-Darwell, senior market development manager for texture at National Starch.

The primary job of starch is to be a thickener in the presence of water. Most starches have to be cooked to be functionalized. However, National Starch also makes instant and modified starches. In addition to bulking up a food, starch ingredients help manage water and prevent syneresis, which is the migration of water to the surface of a food. Water migration can happen when temperatures change or as proteins or carbohydrates bond more tightly to themselves and squeeze out water.

One common use of starch-based food ingredients is replacing a portion of fat, including fat from dairy, in sauces and other products. “If a customer has a high-fat, creamy sauce like Alfredo, they know that a lot of people love the indulgent experience but avoid it because of saturated fat and calories. It may be 19 to 20% heavy cream,” Mutz-Darwell points out. Customers may want to create a version with only 10% cream, or possibly none.

Fats and oils impart a number of textural attributes, and National Starch food scientists track them all to make sure new formulas match the original, or target, recipe. “When removing fat or oil, we want to know what it contributed to the eating experience as well as the goals and restrictions of the new product,” Mutz-Darwell says. Then National Starch formulators get to work. “We build back lubricity, mouth coating, how it melts away—because fat melts—creaminess, and oral viscosity. We include what’s left in your mouth and how quickly it clears your palate.”

Mutz-Darwell stresses that nine of 10 food product introductions will fail in the marketplace, and the wrong texture can spell doom for a new item. Texture is important not only to give food the right feel but also because a change to any textural ingredient will also alter a product’s flavour. So it’s no surprise that food makers desire an objective means of measuring texture….

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