Pull any packaged food item off the shelf and chances are it has a long list of mysterious ingredients with highly scientific names like "methylcellulose." If you're like us, you may puzzle and even worry a little over these unappetizing words.
Why do we have so much weird stuff like methylcellulose and xanthum gum that's produced in a laboratory in our food? Texture, baby, texture. It's nearly impossible to understate the importance of texture and "mouth feel" to food companies, especially in an age when people fear the fat content in their food.
As the American Chemical Society reports in the most recent issue of its magazine, Chemical & Engineering News, replacements for animal and vegetable fats were a $5.8 billion industry last year. That's just one small part of the "better for you" products that drove more than 70 percent of food company sales growth in the last five years, according to a recent analysis.
But while chemists do create these creamy simulations in a lab, a lot of them are actually derived from plants — like trees and seaweed. That so-called natural aspect may appeal to high-end chefs who, as we reported recently, are trying to innovate with texture and lower the fat in their own gastronomic masterpieces.
If you'd like to know more about those things that are thickening and gelling your processed food, check out this useful list that Chemical & Engineering News put together:
- Alginates are derived from brown seaweeds. They are used for thickening, stabilizing, gelling, and film forming in foods such as cream and fruit fillings, salad dressings, ice cream, low-fat spreads, restructured meats, and yogurt.
- Carrageenans are carbohydrates extracted from red seaweeds. Used for gelling, thickening, and stabilizing, they are often found in ice cream, coffee whiteners, cottage cheese, and low- or no-fat salad dressings. They are also used to suspend cocoa in chocolate milk.
- Microcrystalline cellulose comes from tree pulp. It forms a stable gel that provides creaminess and cling to salad dressings, sauces, batters, fillings, icings, and low-fat sour cream. It prevents fried foods from becoming soggy and helps stabilize whipped toppings and chocolate drinks.
- Methylcellulose also comes from tree pulp. It has gelling properties that reduce oil uptake in fried foods and improve the texture of meat alternatives. It can also be used to improve the "mouth feel" of sugar-free beverages and reduce milk fat in whipped toppings and desserts. A new use is to help trap air in gluten-free foods.
- Cellulose gum is made from tree pulp and cotton fibers. It helps retain moisture in frozen dough, tortillas, and cakes and reduces fat uptake in doughnuts. It stabilizes proteins in protein drinks and replaces texture lost when reducing sugar in beverages. Cellulose gum adds viscosity, flow, and glossy appearance to low-fat sauces.
- Gelatin is derived from the collagen in pig and cattle skins and bones. It is used as a gelling agent, stabilizer, thickener, and texturizer in desserts, yogurt, and low-fat foods.
- Guar gum, a polysaccharide, comes from the seeds of the guar gum bush, Cyamopsis tetragonolobus, which is an annual leguminous plant that originated in India. As a thickener, it is eight times more powerful than cornstarch. It controls moisture and adds texture to baked goods. It also controls viscosity in dairy drinks, salad dressings, and condiments.
- Pectin is extracted from the peels of citrus fruits and from sugar beets. It is used for gelling, thickening, and stabilizing food. Pectin derived from sugar beets does not form a gel but is used for stabilizing and emulsifying. Pectin is used in jams, jellies, fillings, and confectioneries. It can also be used to thicken and stabilize fruit- and milk-based beverages.
- Starch is generally derived from corn, potatoes, or tapioca. Food makers use both native and modified versions. Starch can be hydrolyzed into dextrins such as maltodextrin. Starches are used as thickeners, stabilizers, and fat replacers in puddings, sauces, and salad dressings. They are often added to grain-based foods such as breads, cereals, tortillas, and pasta.
- Xanthan gum is made by industrial fermentation of sugar by the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. Used in small amounts, it adds viscosity and cling to salad dressings and sauces. It is also used in egg substitutes and in gluten-free baking.