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.
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.
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.