Hydrocolloids are essential ingredients for countless processed foods, ranging from meat alternatives to desserts to sauces to beverages. In fact, a recent study from Emergen Research shows that the size of the worldwide hydrocolloids market is growing at about 5% each year and should reach $14.35 billion in 2028.
So when supply chain problems affect hydrocolloids, many food processors are affected.
“As with many sectors, the global supply and demand environment across the biogums industry has experienced disruptions and become out of balance this year,” says Shaw Gilmer, senior director, Biogums Strategic Platform Marketing for CP Kelco.
Lots of problems
The factors affecting hydrocolloid supply are legion, and some are years in the making.
For example, in some cases, the raw material used to make the hydrocolloid is simply in low supply because farmers can’t keep up.
A key example is locust bean gum, a hydrocolloid derived from the seeds of the carob tree. It is widely used in countless applications, from thickening beverages or sauces to improving the mouthfeel of yogurt products.
Because it is naturally derived, it’s ideal for clean-label applications, plant-based foods, vegan products and other processed foods that seek a healthy aura. Locust bean gum, which is also known as LBG, carob bean gum and carobin, also is used in many non-food applications, such as in paper making, cosmetics and cigarettes.
No surprise then that LBG is high demand. But because carob trees take seven years before they can produce pods and 15 years to mature, suppliers cannot meet demand simply by planting more trees.
“Locust bean gum has seen high inflation for multiple years now,” says says Susanne Sorgel, senior director, strategic platform marketing for CP Kelco. “CP Kelco has always been able to supply it to customers, but the high price has triggered reformulation throughout the industry.”
Another key hydrocolloid, carrageenan, which is derived from red seaweed, also has been in short supply in the past year, Sorgel says. That has led to higher prices and longer lead times. Carrageenan is often used as a low-calorie fat replacement, though some controversy exists about its usage because it may cause inflammation. Regardless, demand has exceeded supply recently.
“Shortage in supply of raw materials from various manufacturers of carrageenan around the globe has resulted in a severe demand-supply gap,” says a report titled “Carrageenan Market - Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends, and Forecast, 2021-2031.” From Transparency Market Research.
Another factor affecting hydrocolloid supply in some cases is labor. The majority of hydrocolloids – which includes starches – are agriculturally derived in one way or another, which means the supply of their underlying raw material is affected by the current labor shortages. Likewise, labor issues are affecting the transportation industry, which indirectly affects the supply of all ingredients.
High energy prices are another factor. Several hydrocolloids require heat, pressure or other energy-intensive inputs in the manufacturing process. As worldwide energy prices exploded in 2022, the prices of hydrocolloids were naturally affected.
For example, agar, which is derived from seaweed, involves extraction using boiling water and pressure, followed by freezing and thawing, all of which consumes energy. And, as with any product, more energy is consumed just getting the hydrocolloid from the manufacturer to the food processor.
Finally, the war in Ukraine has impacted the supply chain worldwide, including that of hydrocolloids. Higher fuel prices are a direct result – which impacts everything from shipping to manufacturing – but the war has also greatly disrupted agriculture in Ukraine. Though the country is not a major supplier of hydrocolloids, it does produce some modified food starch, which is a hydrocolloid.
Food processors suffering from hydrocolloid price inflation or supply limitations have some options to alleviate the situation, ranging from reformulation to finding alternative sources.
Locust bean gum, for example, is somewhat replaceable with a variety of other hydrocolloids, including tara gum, guar gum, xanthan gum and gellan gum.
Tara gum has the same basic chemical format as locust bean gum – they are both galactomannans, polysaccharides consisting of a mannose backbone with galactose side groups. Like LBG, tara gum is derived from a seed, in this case from the tara plant (also known as Peruvian carob), a native of Peru. In certain applications, such as ice cream, it is a suitable replacement for LBG it because bolsters freeze-thaw stability and adds mouthfeel.
Guar gum is another galactomannan that has some of the same characteristics of LBG. It is derived from a legume called guar beans and costs significantly less than LBG.
Two other gums used in some LBG replacements are xanthan gum, which is made from a fermentation of glucose and sucrose inoculated with Xanthomonas campestris, and gellan gum, which is made by the bacterium Sphingomonas elodea, which was first discovered in lily plant tissue.
These LBG replacements are not without their own supply issues, however. The supply of xanthan gum, for example, has been disrupted because of problems in China, which is one of that product’s biggest worldwide suppliers. And the price of guar gum has shot up this year, according to market reports.
Depending on the application, sometimes switching to an entire other class of hydrocolloids is possible when one is in short supply. For example, in 2021 Cargill introduced the SimPure tapioca starch line, which has been put to use in dairy products, meat alternatives and pet food, says Shiva Elayedath, principal technical account manager for starch at Cargill.
Pectin, derived from fruit peels, is another hydrocolloid that is in a better supply situation than LBG. Cargill, for example, opened a pectin production facility in Brazil in 2021 that added supply to the market.
“The new plant not only significantly increases our pectin supply, it also spreads our production across two continents,” says Iliana Nava, senior technical service specialist for hydrocolloids, Cargill. She adds that Cartill operates three pectin plants in Europe.
Blends to the rescue
Blends of hydrocolloids or hydrocolloids and other ingredients are often another option for replacing a hydrocolloid in short supply.
For example, IFF offers a line called Grindsted System Blends that mix hydrocolloids, emulsifiers and enzymes to meet certain food processing requirements. One combination includes guar gum or xanthan gum and a reduced quantity of LBG -- it is ideal for cream cheese. Another blend in that system includes tara gum and guar gum and is designed for dairy and plant-based frozen desserts.
Sometimes a mix of gellan gum and citrus fiber creates the right combination. That blend can replace LBG in some products, such as dairy alternative beverages, Gilmer reports.
The challenges facing the supply of hydrocolloids worldwide are not going to end soon. The war in Ukraine, high energy prices, shipping problems and high demand all will continue to impact availability for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, food processors can search out suitable replacements for most applications.