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Food Label Misconceptions

In the modern food supply, most products – including those that are vegan, organic, and pantry staples, have lists of ingredients on their labels. The purpose of these lists, which are required by law, is to provide consumers with information regarding the ingredients contained in the product. Although all food ingredients must be proven safe, some are hard to pronounce or sound weird which can seem confusing or even frightening to consumers. Especially if a product has a food label with a long list of ingredients that have unfamiliar or scientific names. It’s completely fine to dislike or to avoid any food product due to dietary needs or personal preference, however there’s no need to avoid foods due to a fear of ingredient lists.

Everything is a Chemical

The idea of food additives, which are also referred to as chemicals in food, may sound odd to some – however the truth is that, when it comes to food products, everything is a chemical. Water, air, and food, including food additives, are all made up of chemicals. Some chemicals in food are naturally-occurring while others are manmade. Chemicals are abundant even in simple, healthy, everyday foods like bananas – which contain over 50 chemical compounds. However, the presence or absence of chemicals in a food product does not make the product any more or less “natural”, “artificial”, healthy, or safe; and as a matter of fact, some natural foods are more chemically complicated than foods a consumer might view as manufactured or processed.

Ingredients added to food are regulated by national authorities, which study the science to ensure they are safe for their intended use. When food products have long lists containing numerous scientific ingredients and/or additives, it represents nothing about the health or safety of the food, but rather shows how structurally complex they are.

It is understandable that consumers may be confused or intimidated by long and chemical-sounding ingredient lists on food labels, but a little more info and insight can quickly help remove this confusion. For example, due to FDA regulation that requires ingredient lists to include all sub-ingredients, a commonly known ingredient like “baking powder” must legally be shown as “baking powder (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, and cornstarch)”. Because of FDA regulations, and the inherent complexity of foods, labels are left packed with what can feel like dozens of scientific ingredient names; and consumers should know that there is no need to fear or avoid these products and ingredients. In fact, the inclusion of some food additives such as emulsifiers and humectants can help keep an ingredient list shorter in a food product.

Check out this 2-minute YouTube video, “Chemicals in Food,” that explains how everything, including the food we eat, is made up of chemicals.

The Benefits of Food Science

Food additives, with their sometimes long scientific names and all, should be embraced by consumers because they play important roles in foods. Additives can help enhance a food’s nutritional value, improve texture and enhance shelf life, make foods more convenient, and help ensure a healthier, more sustainable, and more efficient food supply. Food additives contribute to everything that consumers love about food; taste, texture, appearance, health benefits, convenience, and more – and there is no reason to misunderstand or be afraid by ingredient names.

What are Clean Labels?

“Clean label” is a term made popular by consumers and refers to products that are made with as few ingredients as possible. In many cases, this is to dispel some of the previously mentioned misconceptions and fears about food additives. These are products that often use common, easily identified, and trustworthy ingredients in an effort to make consumers feel, whether justly or not, more comfortable with their foods.

The issue with “clean labels,” and the term, is that it doesn’t really speak to the science or safety of food products. The truth of the matter is that food labels, including those with long lists of scientific names, are clean and safe themselves; and to get rid of these naturally-occurring, supportive ingredients and additives only serves to reduce taste, convenience, shelf-life, and overall food efficiency.

To better understand food labels, ingredient lists, FDA regulations, and more, check out IFAC’s “Understanding Food Labels.”

Food Additives: Supporting Food Affordability

Food additives play a number of important roles in the production, distribution, storage, and availability of food and beverage products. Most food additives serve multiple functions, many of which help create a more efficient and streamlined food supply. For example, food gums are used to help stabilize and thicken food products, which in turn prevents spoilage and extends shelf-life, ultimately reducing food waste. But the benefits don’t stop there. Improved shelf-life also positively impacts the cost and convenience of food – for consumers and for the food industry.

Consumer Affordability & Convenience

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the average American spends just under 10% of their disposable income on food. For those with lower income, food can represent up to 35% of their total pay. With those numbers in mind, it’s incredibly important that consumers get the most out of what they buy which means that much of the food they purchase needs to remain fresh as long as possible to avoid it from going bad before it is consumed. Foods with a longer shelf life don’t need to be rushed to the store for immediate purchase and consumption, and many do not need to be refrigerated or frozen to stay fresh. As a result, these foods tend to be less expensive and consumers can spend less to get more and keep their pantry full. Food additives enable families to enjoy safe and nutritious diets while not being financially weighed down by food expenses.

Food additives also provide vitamins, essential nutrients, and more which helps consumers reach sufficient nutritional levels without having to spend extra money. For instance, carrageenan is used to stabilize liquid infant formula, preventing separation of important vitamins and minerals and ensuring consistent nutrient delivery. Monocalcium phosphate is a source of both calcium and phosphorus in baked goods, which helps strengthen bones and cells. Cellulose is considered a source of dietary fiber, which has been identified as a nutrient concern because it is underconsumed, so can be added to foods to help consumers improve their fiber intake and fill the “fiber gap”.

Affordability in the Supply Chain

On a national and global scale, additives make food more affordable to produce, and the production and distribution of food more efficient. Because they extend shelf-life, food manufacturers don’t have to take on a heavier burden of moving product as soon as it is produced or in some cases refrigerating product, which lowers production, storage, and transportation costs. Without food additives, the production and distribution of food would need to change to adjust to more limited shelf life. This would result in more costs to produce food, which would trickle down to the prices we pay at the store.

Not only do food additives improve the taste, quality and texture of our food and drinks, they also improve the cost of food by ensuring that products maintain their value for longer periods of time, benefitting producers, distributors, retailers, and consumers.

A More Sustainable, Affordable Food Market

Food additives make food products, and thus the food supply, safer, more sustainable, and more affordable. The qualities of various food additives help make dollars go farther by supporting and maintaining food value.

In addition, additives make the process of buying, selling, and storing food more convenient for all. Without them, families and individuals would be spending more time, and money, making frequent grocery store visits to avoid food spoilage. Aside from the convenience it provides to our wallets and routines, food additives also make sufficient dietary and nutritional intake more convenient in an affordable, reliable, and easy way.

A More Sustainable Food Supply: How Food Additives Help

Even in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, research has found that consumers are still highly interested in sustainability. In fact, a substantial 83% of U.S. consumers take environmental impact into account when purchasing food products – indicative of the rising trend of sustainability over the past decade. With the global population steadily climbing towards an estimated 9.6 billion by the year 2050, equating to an additional 75 million people each year needing food, it may seem challenging to produce food in a manner that doesn’t negatively affect the environment. But with a better understanding of food additives and their contributions to sustainability, the goal of providing a sufficient amount of food while trimming excess and preventing waste becomes more realistic.

Food ingredients – more specifically food additives – are used to enhance the flavor, texture, appearance, and other key qualities of food. But what you may not know is that sustainability is an integral element to their purpose and function. Food additives help to keep our food supply sustainable by preserving food to keep it fresh and edible for extended periods of time, bolstering plant-based products and diets, and enhancing overall food production, distribution, packaging, and storage. Food additives also help support sustainability by contributing to food availability, nutrition delivery, affordability, and convenience while supporting the growth and development of domestic and global economies.

How Do food Additives Bolster Sustainability?

Every year, around one-third of all food produced on earth (over 1 billion tons) goes to waste. Not only does this squander resources, but it accounts for between 8-10% of emissions contributing to the global carbon footprint, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Food additives are a crucial element to reducing food waste and loss. Throughout history, certain ingredients have been used as a means of preserving food products to prevent them from spoiling – demonstrating how the purpose of food additives is inherently anti-food waste. Additives are necessary in guaranteeing consistent quality as food products travel from farms, factories, retailers, and ultimately to the plate. Food additives also contribute to food safety. By helping to ensure food safety and quality, food additives are a crucial element in maintaining and enhancing a sustainable food supply.

How Do Food Additives Enhance Food Production & Distribution?

Food additives support sustainability by enhancing the longevity and safety of food products. Whether produced from natural sources or synthesized under safe and regulated conditions, many additives serve to maintain a product’s freshness or prevent causes of spoilage like extreme temperatures and lights, microorganisms, or chemicals. Not only do additives help to prevent food from going bad, they also can enhance taste and appearance. 

Many food additives are designed with the purpose of extending a product’s shelf life by, in one way or another, preserving the integrity and quality of a product. Depending on the food product, the use of additives can substantially extend shelf life by preventing oxidation, inhibiting decay, rot, or mold, and more. In these instances, food additives allow products to maintain original form for longer periods of time with no drop-off in safety, health, or taste.

Food products travel long distances before ending up in your fridge, passing through farms, factories, retailers, and more before being purchased – additives that prevent early food expiration help protect the integrity, safety, and quality of food throughout this process.

How Do Food Additives Contribute to Sustainable, Plant-Based Products and Diets?

Plant-based food ingredients directly bolster environmental sustainability by supporting the growing plant-based food market. Many consumers are incorporating more plant-based foods into their diets as a healthier lifestyle change that also better supports the environment, with a full quarter of 25-34 year old Americans now saying they are vegans or vegetarians. These ingredients do not require the use of any animals in their production, and thus evade the resulting emissions from animal farming, digestive gas from animals, storage and production associated with animals, and more. Plant-based diets and products are chosen by many for their inherent positive effect on the environmental footprint of individuals and food supplies. In addition, many food ingredients also contribute to the rich, savory and umami flavors of plant-based products that have drawn in many consumers who are looking for flavorful plant-based meat-alternatives.

As it currently stands, food additives support sustainability in the supply chain and in food production through maintaining and reducing the amount of food that is wasted on a daily, monthly, and annual basis.  As plant-based food trends continue to rise concurrently with sustainability concerns, food ingredients will continue to contribute to environmental sustainability through their incorporation within this growing market of food products. Technologies and innovations surrounding food additives will continue to develop and expand as time passes to better support and accommodate a sustainable food supply and future.

Why Food Ingredients Are Especially Important During COVID-19

Currently the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and many are social distancing in an effort to stay healthy and help to stop the spread of the virus. As a result, many are purchasing food supplies intended to last for two to four weeks in order to avoid having to go to the store on a regular basis.

The International Food Additives Council wants to remind consumers that the safety and quality of the global food supply remains strong and that food additives continue to play an important role in maintaining the quality of foods in your pantry. Food additives help ensure food products remain shelf-stable, extend product shelf life, and allow consumers to stock up on food products without fear of immediate expiration. For more information on the different types of food ingredients and food additives, click here.

During this time, when consumers want to minimize their time in the store and may wish to stock up on food, packaged foods containing food additives are an excellent option. In addition to contributing to taste, texture, freshness, and appearance of food, food additives contribute to product stability and shelf life. Below are several important food additive classifications and how they contribute to product stability.

Preservatives

Preservatives help extend the life of foods and prevent spoilage. Preservatives also help foods maintain their appearance, taste, and texture. Preservatives are found in a variety of foods including jellies, cereals, oils, and baked goods.

Preservatives come in many forms. For example, sugar, salt, and vinegar are often used to delay the growth of bacteria in foods. Antioxidants help reduce oxidation in foods, increasing shelf life and preventing spoilage. And phosphates are used to help preserve processed meat and poultry products.

Emulsifiers, Stabilizers, and Thickeners

Emulsifiers, Stabilizers, and Thickeners are common food additives and help maintain the appearance of foods while preserving freshness and quality.

  • Emulsifiers help to prevent oil and water mixtures from separating within a product and are found in a variety of foods, including margarine, ice cream, bread, chocolate, and some processed meats. Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids are a common example of an emulsifier that disperses fat in foods to allow it to become more water-soluble. They can also help reduce food waste by keeping foods mixed.
  • Stabilizers help ingredients stay dispersed and suspended in a product solution. Stabilizers are commonly used in beverages – such as fruit and vegetable juices – as well as liquid infant formula. Some common stabilizers include gellan gum and carrageenan.
  • Thickeners enhance the texture of foods and can give low fat or reduced calorie foods the texture of full fat/calorie options. Xanthan gum is a common thickener and can even be purchased in grocery stores.

Firming Agents

Firming agents help foods maintain their crisp quality and strength. They are also commonly used to help prolong shelf life. Firming agents are used in a variety of foods including canned meats, pickles, fruits, and vegetables. Sodium citrate, also known as citric acid, is a common firming agent derived from citrus fruit.

A ‘How to’ Guide to The Ingredient List

There has been quite a lot of discussion in the United States (U.S.) surrounding the new Nutrition Facts Label (NFL), especially given the January 1, 2020 deadline for large companies to update their products’ packaging. However, perhaps just as important as being able to read the nutrients provided by a food or beverage is understanding all of the ingredients inside.

The U.S. government requires disclosure of all ingredients contained in packaged foods and beverages via a highly-regulated ingredient list placed below the NFL. So, while some may complain that they “don’t know what is in their food,” when it comes to packaged foods and beverages, the problem is rarely that the ingredients aren’t listed. Rather, the issue lies in a lack of understanding of how to read and interpret the ingredient list.

Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a database of over 3,000 different food ingredients, known as the “Substances Added to Food” inventory. That is a ton of ingredients to keep track of, even for the most savvy food connoisseur! These ingredients are added to improve the taste, texture, appearance of foods and beverages. Importantly, they can also improve safety, for example indirect additives that prevent food packaging components from leaching into the product, as well as enhance the nutritional value of products.

While we’ve previously tackled how best to assess a label for nutrients like calories, carbohydrates, fat and sodium, the ingredient list can also offer great insight into a product – if you know how to read it. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you interpret the next ingredient you find yourself curious about.

Starting from the Top

Food manufacturers must display every ingredient used in a product on the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed in descending order, starting with the most prevalent ingredient in the food, and ending with the least prevalent. For example, an ingredients list for popcorn might read “Corn, Vegetable Oil, Salt.” Corn is used in the greatest amount and therefore is listed first, followed by oil and then salt, which is used in the least amount. Another point to consider is that some ingredients may be grouped together, such as “natural flavors” and “artificial colors.”

Understanding Ingredients

When in doubt, look it up! While a long, Latin-derived word can look intimidating, taking a few seconds to research the ingredient will most likely simplify it. As noted by the FDA “Every food we eat – whether a just-picked strawberry or a homemade cookie – is made up of chemical compounds that determine flavor, color, texture and nutrient value.” So while the word ascorbic acid may look odd, it is simply the scientific term for vitamin C.

Putting Length into Context

The length of an ingredient list doesn’t necessarily determine the healthfulness of foods! The FDA requires that the ingredient list includes all sub-ingredients that are used to make a single ingredient. For example, baking powder would show up on an ingredient list as: baking powder (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, cornstarch). Imagine how long an ingredient list for a whole grain baked item would be! By law, nutrient-dense products with a combination of ingredients and flavors are obligated to include long, scientifically-accurate ingredient lists.

Fortified or Enriched

On grain products such as cereals, breads, or corn grits, you may find a collection of ingredients following the phrase “Vitamins & Minerals.” These ingredients are referred to in the nutrition world as “micronutrients” and include vitamins A, C, D and E, magnesium, zinc, niacin and calcium. Micronutrients have been added to foods since 1924, when the mineral iodine was added to salt to prevent goiter. Following the success of iodized salt, the FDA instituted several other fortification mandates meant to enhance the nutrition of foods and prevent widespread malnutrition. One of FDA’s most successful fortification requirements has been the addition of folic acid to grain and cereal products since 1998, which has been shown to protect against instances of birth defects to the brain, spine and spinal cord. This mandate led to a 25% reduction in neural tube defects between 1995 – 1996 and 1999 – 2000 (CDC).

Have more questions about U.S. food labels? Learn more about the new Nutrition Facts Label here!

A Moving Target – The Search for “Healthy” Food in America

As the debate rages on about which diets are best and how we should shop for food, there is one thing most Americans agree on – we all want to make healthier choices. However, a recent survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) reveals the universal quest for healthy choices is proving to seem more like a game of Where’s Waldo, as many consumers struggle to identify which foods and beverages can be deemed “healthy.”

According to the survey, conducted in October 2018 with over 1,000 American consumers ages 18-80, 95% of respondents reported they “always or sometimes” look for healthy options while grocery shopping. When asked how consumers evaluate the healthfulness of food, a majority of respondents reported first consulting the Nutrition Facts panel followed by checking the ingredient list and then searching for front-of-pack information, such as the AHA’s ‘Heart-Check’ mark and the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) ‘Facts Up Front’ label. Further, as noted by NPR, some consumers rely more heavily on queues from environmentally minded and socially conscious icons, such as those that denote whether the animal-derived product is grass-fed. Despite fully evaluating the labeling on packaged foods, only 28% of Americans found it easy to identify and find healthy options, revealing a “gap between consumers’ desire to find information about healthy foods and their ability to do so.”

The disparity between consumer demand for healthier options and lack of consumer understanding of how to identify such foods and beverages highlights the importance of conducting consumer research prior to and in conjunction with modernizing labeling rules. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized the difficulty for consumers to identify healthy options.

As covered in a previous IFAC post, FDA introduced the updated Nutrition Facts label in 2016 to more clearly identify helpful nutrition and serving size information for consumers in the hope of encouraging more informed and healthful dietary choices. More recently in March of 2018, the FDA announced their Nutrition Innovation Strategy (NIS). Through this initiative, FDA intends to conduct a comprehensive review and update of current nutrition and food labeling regulations to make them more helpful to the average consumer. While the NIS is still in the early stages of development, the agency has outlined key strategies that will help to simplify healthy eating. A summary of these changes, which are intended to help Americans better identify, and therefore make healthier options, include the following:

Modernizing Claims

The FDA will work to define “healthy,” establish the criteria necessary to use this claim and consider developing an icon to help consumers better identify healthy choices.

Modernizing Ingredient Labels

As consumers demand more pared-down ingredient lists, the FDA is suggesting simpler names for select ingredients, such as using Vitamin C for “ascorbic acid.”

Modernizing Standards of Identity

While innovations within the food industry allow for enhanced products and more choices, unfamiliar products or ingredients may lead to consumer confusion. The FDA plans to set stricter standards for classifying certain standardized food products such as bread, jam, juices, and chocolate.

Implementing the Nutrition Facts Label and Menu Labeling

With the advent of the first major change to the Nutrition Facts label (NFL) in 20 years, FDA plans to support the adoption of the new (NFL) label and menu-labeling requirements, along with a campaign geared towards consumers to understand how to use the new NFL.

Reducing Sodium

As excess sodium has been found to lead to high blood pressure, the Agency is continuing its efforts to reduce sodium intake, a public health action meant to greatly prevent the rate of heart attack and stroke.

Have more questions about nutrition? Learn more here.

What’s the Magic Behind Hot Cocoa?

As temperatures drop and we don our winter scarves and sweaters, it’s hard to imagine this time of year without rich, cozy hot chocolate to warm our bodies and spirits! Ambitious home cooks may consider whipping up their own, but, just like your favorite store-bought cookie dough, there is something undeniably nostalgic about that single-serve packet of instant hot chocolate. Signifying one of life’s simple pleasures, it just takes heating a cup of water or milk, and stirring in that inconspicuous brown powder to create a magical moment as you cozy up with a steaming mug of cocoa. The secret behind that moment is a few key ingredients, which help create the creamy, decadent and sweet beverage. Below we reveal some of these key ingredients and how they work.

Alkalized Cocoa

Many hot chocolate mixes start with alkalized cocoa powder, also known as “dutch-processed”. Alkalized cocoa powder is made from roasted cocoa beans that have a majority of the fat removed to produce a dry and intense chocolate powder. As cocoa beans are naturally very acidic with fruity undertones, the alkalizing process lightens the tartness and reduces the fruit flavors in the cocoa, producing a dark and savory chocolate powder. Alkalized cocoa powder adds an intense chocolate flavor to hot chocolate mix while also contributing a rich, brown color.

Mono- and Diglycerides

The magic in hot chocolate mix is watching water and powder turn into a creamy and rich liquid. This reaction is made possible with emulsifiers, such as mono- and diglycerides, which are a group of ingredients that disperse fat in foods to allow other ingredients, such as cocoa powder, to become more water-soluble. Emulsifiers also work to keep your hot chocolate from separating once it’s mixed, so you can take your time and enjoy every sip.

Carrageenan

Lastly, you might notice carrageenan listed on your packet of hot chocolate. This food gum, which is derived from seaweed, is often incorporated for added creaminess and a richer mouthfeel, similar to the difference between water and 2% milk. Carrageenan helps turn hot water into a more viscous liquid, similar to the heavy cream one might use when making hot chocolate from scratch – except carrageenan doesn’t add calories or fat!

Have more questions about food ingredients? Learn more here.

Food Ingredients that Bring Holiday Cheer

A wise elf once said, “We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup.” While you may or may not take Buddy the Elf’s dietary advise seriously, it’s hard to imagine a holiday season without sweet confections. Whether you are looking to stuff a stocking, fill a candy bowl, or decorate a gingerbread house, candy is an integral part of the holiday season. From colorful candy canes to Santa-shaped chocolates, candy is equal parts decorative and delicious this time of year. A recent survey conducted by a distinguished online bulk candy store of over 30,000 customers even identified America’s favorite holiday candy by state (you can browse the interactive map here). While the people of Georgia may prefer candy canes, and Californians can’t get enough chocolate peanut butter cups, holiday candy is loved universally.  Below is just a snapshot of the food ingredients that turn candies into seasonal delights, year after year!

Certified Colors

What would a candy cane be without its signature red and white stripe? Certified colors play an important role in food and beverages throughout the year, but the holiday season wouldn’t be the same without cheery, vibrant hues. Certified color additives, like the ones used to create the classic bright red stripes on candy canes, have been used in foods for over 50 years. They are also often used to balance and enhance colors that already occur naturally in foods. There are two types of food colors approved by the FDA – certified colors and those exempt from certification. Colors exempt from certification are derived from natural materials like vegetables and minerals, while certified colors are synthetically produced under strict safety conditions.

Lecithin

While no holiday is complete without candy canes and crystallized confections, you could say the same about freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and beautifully wrapped chocolates. From chocolate bars to chocolate truffles, if you check the ingredient list you’re most likely to see soy lecithin included. Lecithin is a type of fat typically derived from soybeans or eggs, and is used to improve the texture and mouthfeel of chocolate, allowing for the smooth, rich experience that consumers expect of the final product. In the case of soy lecithin, once beans are harvested, soybeans are crushed to produce a variety of products, including oil. Soy lecithin is produced by mixing soybean oil with hot water, and centrifuging the mixture to separate the lecithin. Over the holidays, soy lecithin helps your molded chocolates keep their shape and sheen, and ensures bell-shaped peanut butter cups have a substantial chocolate coating.

Have more questions about food ingredients? Learn more here.

A Closer Look at the Thanksgiving Table

American home cooks, both domestic and abroad, are preparing to tackle Thanksgiving dinner this week. While most are familiar with the classic menu of turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, cornbread and pie, many are less familiar with the food ingredients that make some of those Thanksgiving favorites so delicious. Below are just a handful of the food ingredients that are sure to play a critical role in your holiday feast.

Monocalcium Phosphate

Planning to make a batch of cornbread muffins, biscuits, or pumpkin bread for the table? You’ll probably want to add a touch of monocalcium phosphate, better known as baking powder, to the mix. Monocalcium phosphate helps muffins, quick breads, cakes and cookies rise without having to add yeast. In baked goods, monocalcium phosphate reacts with baking soda to produce carbon dioxide, which helps the dough rise.  Peak through your oven window and see carbon dioxide at work, releasing air bubbles in the batter, transforming it into a light, fluffy and delicious treat.

Food Gums

From dinner to dessert, food gums, like guar gum and konjac gum, do some pretty heavy lifting on Thanksgiving. For instance, they serve as emulsifiers in gravies and sauces, ensuring turkey gravy and dressings remain rich and creamy, not separating by the time it hits your potatoes or salad. Food gums also contribute to the rich mouthfeel of dairy-type items like whipped toppings, adding that essential creamy final touch to a slice of pie.

Carrageenan

Pumpkin pie is arguable the most iconic pie associated with the Thanksgiving holiday. However, many people don’t realize we have carrageenan to thank for this classic. The standard recipe relies on evaporated milk made with carrageenan. Carrageenan is a natural, plant-based ingredient derived from red seaweed that is used for its technical contributions to foods and beverages, including improved texture and stabilizing attributes. Evaporated milk made with carrageenan adds a velvety smooth and rich texture to the classic pumpkin pie recipe.

Have more questions about food ingredients? Learn more here.

The Wonderful World of Food Gums

It’s no surprise to see milk on the ingredient list of your favorite ice cream, or olive oil in salad dressing. But if you look further down you may be wondering why different kinds of “gums” are also in these products, and not just the chewing gums at check-out. Food gums such as gum Arabic, carob bean gum and konjac gum have been used for hundreds of years (some date back to ancient Egypt) and come from a variety of different natural sources, including trees, seeds, roots, produce and seaweed. One characteristic most gums have in common is their ability to act as an emulsifier, preventing oil and water mixtures from separating. They also provide stability, thickening properties, texture and in some cases, fiber, to a range of products. Food gums can be divided into a few different categories, based on where they come from. Below are four groups of food gums, and examples of products you may find them in.

1. Tree Saps

Some gums come from tree saps, similar to maple syrup. The most popular tree sap gum is gum Arabic, which is also commonly referred to as acacia gum. This gum comes from the acacia tree, which is native to central Africa. Gum Arabic traces its roots to ancient Egypt, but today is used as an emulsifier, allowing common foods to remain shelf-stable over time, allowing you to store unopened salad dressing in your pantry, or keep granola bars in your hiking bag. Tree sap gums are also used to impart texture and thicken foods and beverages.

2. Seeds

As you may expect, seed gums are harvested from seeds. This category includes guar, fenugreek, tara and carob bean gums. Seed gums are made by soaking the seed, extracting the small internal layer that contains the gum, and grinding it into a fine powder. The most well-known gum from this group is guar gum, which comes from seeds grown in India and Pakistan. Because of guar gum’s unique technical attributes, it keeps frozen dairy products consistent through melting and re-freezing that inevitably occurs from production to the grocery store to your freezer. In addition, guar gum is a helpful tool for farmers, as it thrives in drought conditions and its roots actually release nitrogen back into the soil, improving the soil’s quality and increasing the yield of subsequent crops. This group of gums is best used to stabilize and thicken soups, sauces, beverages and dairy products.

3. Root Extracts

The star of the root extracts category is konjac gum. Konjac grows naturally in Southeast Asia and China and has been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes for over 1,500 years. Out of all food gums that can be used in cold liquids, it has the strongest thickening ability, and   like guar gum, konjac gum can be used to improve the stability of ice cream. You may also find konjac gum used in gravy and sauces. Additionally, this gum is used to make konjac noodles, a gluten free pasta popular in select Asian countries.

4. Fermentation

You’ve heard the word “fermentation” when it comes to beer and wine, but not many people realize fermentation technology can be used to create other products, such as food gums. Gums in this group are produced from natural sources, such as bacterial fermentation using carbohydrate and protein. Fermentation gums include   xanthan and gellan gum. Both function to keep products with oils and waters suspended in dressings and sauces. For more information on xanthan gum and how to best bake with it, click here.

Did you know?

Food gums not only originate from land, but also water! Some food gums are produced from seaweed, for example alginate, agar and carrageenan.